NASA’s announcement of a planned trip to Mars in the 2030s makes colonization of Mars seems closer than ever. However, Mars is completely hostile to human life – it’s too cold, too dusty, and has no breathable atmosphere. What more do we need to learn to make Martian colonies a reality?
Dust Storms That Block the Sun
Future Martian colonies would experience dust storms humans have only experienced in movies. In the summer of 2018, a dust storm on Mars blocked all sunlight on the entire planet for weeks and completely killed a NASA rover. While these large, planet-wide storms only happen around once a decade, the impacts can be catastrophic.
NASA speculates these dust storms interrupt the water cycle on Mars. Scientists theorize that the dust blows the water molecules higher into the atmosphere, instead of allowing it to fall as precipitation. High in the atmosphere, radiation from the sun breaks up the molecules. This process is thought by NASA to be the reason for the disappearance of once abundant water on Mars. The water was simply blown away.
The interruption of the water cycle by dust storms would make terraforming on Mars virtually impossible. The elimination of the sun for weeks at a time would prove a challenge to growing plants. All our efforts to form a colony could be wiped out by a single storm. Either developing methods to stop the dust storms or completely sheltering a colony from these storms are exciting new innovations we can expect to see during the development of the first colony mission to Mars.
Where Would Humans Live?
Scientists think the best method for terraforming on Mars is releasing carbon dioxide and water vapor trapped in the ground into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases could thicken the atmosphere and warm Mars. However, in 2018, NASA released a press release saying that they do not currently have the technology to release enough greenhouse gases to warm the planet to a habitable temperature. Their initial results show that Mars likely doesn’t have enough carbon dioxide to create an adequate greenhouse effect.
If terraforming isn’t an option to create a livable atmosphere, one other option is geodomes. We have created the space station – our best example of habitat design in space. However, one could argue that the space station is completely dependent on Earth and in no way self-sufficient. With a trip to Mars taking up to 8 months and unknown sums of money, any architectural design on Mars would have to be completely self-sufficient – way beyond what we currently design on Earth. Since people would not be able to freely leave the geodome habitat, these geodomes would have to be designed to fully address the physical and mental needs of the inhabitants. The innovations in sustainable architecture and environmental psychology when designing a Mars colony would change life on Earth too – for the better.
How Would Humans Travel on Mars?
Initial colonies on Mars would be small and large transportation systems wouldn’t be necessary. Once the colony got large enough, it would be time to think about how inhabitants would get around. The network of roads on Earth has taken a long time to develop and it is always changing. Is a system like what we have on Earth the best option on Mars? Could transportation engineering on Mars be very different from Earth? The engineers on Mars will have the unique opportunity to use advanced knowledge to develop a completely blank slate.