Mars Is the New ‘New World’

Colonizing the Red Planet could offer humans a second chance

In a paper published October 10 in Nature, researchers guided by data from NASA’s Curiosity rover confirmed that an ancient saltwater lake existed on the surface of Mars, some 3.5 billion years ago. This roughly overlaps with the time when multicellular life first began to evolve on Earth. Scientists are hopeful that there is evidence to discover on Mars that points to primitive life on the Red Planet.

But whether or not life ever existed on Mars, it may still be a safe harbor for life in the future — life that comes to it from Earth.

Why Mars?

Mars is a very different world from Earth. With just 11% of the mass and one-third the gravity of our planet, Mars is comparatively tiny, dry, and extremely cold, with the barest hint of an atmosphere composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide.

But it’s close — very close in astronomical terms. Because both Earth and Mars have elliptical orbits and travel around the Sun at different speeds, the distance between them ranges, on average, between about 35 million and 140 million miles.

And Mars has water, in the form of ice, and possibly even some liquid salt water. In July 2018, scientists announced the discovery of an underground lake 12 miles in diameter, roughly a mile below the surface of Mars’ southern ice cap. Although it is inaccessible in the near term, it may one day prove to be a harbor for native Martian life forms.

Photo: Pexels
Photo: Pexels

Despite the seemingly secure feeling of living on a large, relatively geologically-stable world, the human race is under constant threat from catastrophes that could send civilization back to stone-age levels or exterminate us entirely. Comets, meteors, solar flares, supernovae, supervolcano eruptions, pandemics, nuclear war, and gamma ray bursts are only some of the possible events that could put humanity on the edge of extinction, and some people are unwilling to take that risk. Those who want to preserve our species know there is really only one way: Move us off-world.

But whether or not life ever existed on Mars, it may still be a safe harbor for life in the future — life that comes to it from Earth.

If humans were to build a base on Mars, some contend the planet would be the perfect place from which to mine asteroids for valuable precious metals, minerals, and other elements. Even though today it would be prohibitively expensive to build new ships, supply them for years-long missions, and use chemical fuels to transport tons of material and equipment to Mars, the assets available to us in the future will likely be much more cost effective. Space elevators might help us get material out of Earth’s gravity well and fusion power could propel ships.

How will we do it?

NASA, the United Arab Emirates, and Mars One are three of the biggest contenders for getting to Mars, but there is one other organization that seems to be in the lead: SpaceX.

In 2016, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk showed the world its first glimpse of the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which combines the powerful reusable BFR rocket system (with greater cargo capacity than even the massive Saturn V) and a spaceship that can carry up to 100 people. His goal is to get 1 million people settled on Mars within the next 50 to 100 years.

Sirenum Fossae, Mars. Photo: NASA
Sirenum Fossae, Mars. Photo: NASA

SpaceX has two near-term mission goals: In 2022, the first cargo missions will arrive on Mars to confirm water resources and potential environmental problems, as well as to import infrastructure for life support, power, and mining. All of this will be done with robots and drones. In 2024, cargo and crew missions will put the first humans on Mars, build up the base, and install propellant manufacturing capability. The latter will involve extracting frozen water and various dry ices, presumably abundant, from the soil of Mars in order to make methalox fuel, a combination of liquid oxygen and methane.

Getting 1 million people to Mars using the planned ITS system, at 100 settlers per trip, will require 10,000 separate journeys to the Red Planet. Each journey will take roughly 300 days. The plan for Musk’s Starship is to make the voyage as comfortable as possible and includes a movie theater, lecture hall, and restaurant-style galley. Musk wants it to feel more like an ocean cruise or first-class intercontinental flight than the traditional “camping in space” vibe that modern astronauts experience.

After the first few crewed missions, the fledgling Mars settlement is expected to consist of water, air, and fuel production facilities, several launch sites, and enough habitation modules and greenhouses to sustain 100 settlers.

But once we are there, how will we adapt to living in a place so distant? If the average delay of radio communications between “home base” on Earth and Mars is about 14 minutes, who will make immediate decisions in crisis situations?

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

Martian society

Moving a sizable portion of the human population to a completely new territory with a wealth of natural resources presents many opportunities. It is comparable in some ways to the European settlement of the Americas, only right now we are not sure whether Mars has any native life. Mars may yet prove to harbor some life of its own, and settling there may mean destroying an alien biosphere that we never knew about.

Even if life native to Mars never proves consequential, European colonization, involving multiple powerful countries, resulted in centuries of warfare before any long-term stability was reached. A similar outcome might be expected with a human move to Mars. We would be best served to set down laws and treaties to prevent such conflict before we begin settling Mars.

As a start, it’s useful to look to Earth’s recent past for examples of such laws.

The U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty governs ocean resources and assumes that governments, not individuals, have rights to those resources. The Antarctic Treaty, meanwhile, has as its main goal the prevention of economic or military involvement on the continent, thus keeping Antarctica as a land shared for the purpose of research.

Mars, ultimately, represents a second chance.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, modeled somewhat after the Antarctic Treaty, also precludes government ownership of celestial bodies. It stipulates: “The exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples, irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.”

The Treaty goes on to say that political entities (nations/states) signatory to the Treaty bear responsibility for their own actions in space, as well as the actions of any industrial or private entities within their borders.

In effect, the Outer Space Treaty states that the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, Titan, Europa and any other place we may one day choose or need to exploit should be considered the property of all Earth governments and used for the betterment of all peoples. But this model is utopian at best, and unrealistic in any regard. While treaties do maintain some semblance of order, they only do so as long as the potential rewards for a given party do not outweigh the risks of breaking such a promise. Would any treaty have prevented European exploration and eventual claim and settlement of the Americas, and the exploitation and wars that followed?

Agreements involving private organizations and governments should be made with the foreknowledge that utopian, ultra-socialist agreements may not hold in the long term. The best way to set up a Martian society could be to ensure that it is unencumbered by the ancient geopolitical strife of Earth. Mars should be viewed as a free New World of its own, and settlers should be encouraged to develop it, extract resources, create new products, and launch business ventures, with one caveat: Martian civilization must be designed from the ground up to be self-sustaining and long-lasting, with an open immigration policy, and a limit on population, decided on in advance.

The ultimate goal of Mars settlement visionaries is a planet that is terraformed, green, and wet — one we could truly call a sister world to Earth. But terraforming will be extremely costly. To afford it, Mars will need to become “profitable” first. This is why economic growth will have to be unfettered on the planet for a time. Extreme socialistic restrictions would only hinder that growth.

As aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin writes in The Economic Viability of Mars ColonizationTo be viable, a real Martian civilization must be either completely autarchic (very unlikely until the far future) or be able to produce some kind of export that allows it to pay for the imports it requires.”

In a 2003 talk, Elon Musk stated he does not believe it’s economically viable to mine materials or create products on Mars, then transport those materials back to Earth, since the cost of transport alone, in energy and time, would far exceed the value of what might be transported. He says the real economic value of a Mars settlement to Earth will be in the intellectual property that results from innovation required to conquer the new frontier itself, as well as eventual interplanetary commerce. Challenge and necessity brought on by human expansion on Earth have spurred invention for hundreds of thousands of years, and that will continue as we move on into space.

Ultimately, Mars represents a second chance. If humanity’s existence on Earth is threatened, we would have another world to call home. And, in another sense, if Mars can grow as a new, independent entity, it might be our chance to build a truly peaceful, united world, free of the ancient animosities and strife that plague us here on Earth.

And if all goes well — with some apologies to Neil Armstrong — Mars will be remembered thousands of years from now as the first true step Homo sapiens took into the cosmos.

All Rights Reserved for A. S. Deller

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