Is a colony on Mars a reasonable option for humans? What would be different about harvesting energy on the red planet compared to Earth? Maybe it would be better to just use the space technology we are developing to improve life on Earth, not Mars.
To get the ball rolling for a colony on Mars, you would need a lot of solar and/or nuclear power. Even if we knew that there were big stores of usable hydrocarbons, taking a drilling rig to the red planet wouldn’t be easy to do. In the best of cases, drilling through rock requires a lot of equipment, and space on a Mars voyage is limited. You may also need some refining capabilities to make the hydrocarbons usable. Solar and nuclear are more plug-and-play power sources.
Nuclear energy would be a potent energy source to put on a Mars ship, but the issue could be cooling the cores down. We generally rely on water to keep nuclear power plants cool, and the trace amounts of water on Mars would be needed to drink.
Solar is our current strategy for space travel. The biggest challenges with solar on Mars are the occasional dust storms. The NASA Phoenix Lander ended up covered with dust after two years, which made the solar panels ineffective. NASA is working on technology that would help get rid of dust. The ideal panel would be self-cleaning, and a combination of slippery surfaces and an electrically conductive layer would help shed the thin layers of dust that block the sun. This technology would be great to use on a residential scale—when it becomes price competitive.
One of the latest in a long list of solar inventions from the NASA lab is an origami-inspired panel system that expands from 9 feet to 82 feet when unfolded. The round structure could be easily transported, and it expands with no additional assembly. Something like this could help non-permanent structures rely more on solar power. What if you were at a job site and you could unfold a solar panel from the top of your truck to power all your tools for the day? That would make fighting over the one temporary power cord at a site a non-issue.
A folding solar panel could also work well on your driveway. You could have the same button that closes your garage door unfold a solar array across your driveway while you are gone. The flexible size of solar arrays would open up all sorts of new placement possibilities. Local solar arrays make the most sense for spaceships and the average home. Local power production saves losses that you would have with any normal power plant and miles of transmission lines. Sometimes large, rigid arrays aren’t a possibility, but expanding flexible panels could be a good fit.
The quicker we get away from stiff, boxy solar panels, the better. NASA is using a solar fabric that is made of non-crystalized silicone in development. The rolls of solar panels are only a micrometer thin, so they could be used in place of paint on different-shaped vessels. Maybe you will be able to build a home in the future and decide which surfaces you want to roll with solar instead of regular siding materials.
If we figured out the energy source for a Mars community, what else would we have to deal with? Mars has about 1 percent of the atmosphere we have on Earth, which is part of the reason Mars is so cold on the surface. Earth supports life so well because of the greenhouse effect. Our atmosphere on Earth holds in CO² and other greenhouse gasses, which traps some of the sun’s energy from reflecting back out into space. The greenhouse effect is why your car gets warmer than the ambient air temperature when it is in the sun; less than 100 percent of the radiation energy that enters the car bounces back out. The enhanced greenhouse effect is what causes the additional warming that climate scientists worry about—it's essentially too much of a good thing.
A strange option for improving life on Mars is exactly what we are trying to avoid on Earth: we could warm up Mars by releasing a lot of CO² into the atmosphere to increase the greenhouse effect. More greenhouse gasses on Mars could help build more of an atmosphere and increase the surface temperature. According to Physicsfocus.org, Mars is the second-best option for human life in our solar system (after Earth), despite having an average temperature of -81.4°F, high UV radiation, global dust storms and a non-breathable atmosphere.
An article in Popular Mechanics explained how we could bring microbes to Mars to help create an atmosphere. By planting microorganisms on the planet, we could help to green it up. The plants would help with the greenhouse effect, but like invasive crops on Earth, planting one crop that spreads like wildfire can affect other parts of the ecosystem.
What about water?
According to Popular Mechanics, “Back in April, NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence of liquid water on Mars. Still, this is no life-friendly oasis: The water is hyper-salty, ultra-cold, and contained in fleeting layers of sludge trapped beneath the red planet's regolith soil. Nonetheless, it completes the trifecta of requirements for Earth-like life. We now know Mars has soil-bound nutrients, a carbon monoxide energy source for hungry microbes, and liquid water.”
Overall, if you plan on making it to Mars without some sort of NASA sponsorship, bring your checkbook. Physicsfocus.org notes that the cost of getting a single gallon of water to the moon is about $80,000, so a colony on Mars would be absurdly expensive. Chances are that if your last name isn’t Buffett or Gates, you might not be able to have a second home on Mars in this lifetime.
Nerdy buzz-kill researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the logistics of the proposed Mars One voyage to take humans to the red planet. A key to survival on Mars would be some sort of indoor garden for replenishing food supplies. MIT noticed that the crops would eventually produce so much oxygen that would “exceed fire safety thresholds.” To avoid this, they would have to release nitrogen into the station and purge the oxygen. This apparently isn’t something we know how to do sustainably in space yet. The end result could be suffocation or an explosion if we don’t have a good strategy for controlling excess oxygen.
To recap: to make Mars a better candidate to support human life, we could release non-native microorganisms; flood the atmosphere with CO² to increase the greenhouse effect; and rely on drilling for salty water. These are all practices that aren’t sustainable on Earth. Also, eventually your food may poison you or cause and explosion.
The technology that is being developed to move to Mars may make Earth harder to leave. It will be a day to remember when we eventually put a man on Mars, but it might not be a good planet evacuation strategy. Adapting the technology they will need to use to get to Mars may turn out to be the saving grace for the rest of us on Earth.
Max Rohr has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and is RPA’s Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @maxjrohr.com.