The possibility of humans living on Mars has entranced humankind for decades. Because the Red Planet is relatively close in proximity to Earth, the two planets have several similarities, such as day duration and axial tilt, as well as the presence of water frozen in ice caps.
But until recently, the idea of colonizing Mars for human habitation was little more than a fantasy dreamed up by Hollywood movies and sci-fi pulp novelists. While there have been dozens of serious proposals for human-manned missions to Mars over the past century, it wasn’t until somewhat recently that these ambitions have begun to gain real momentum.
Endorsed by influential tech giants like Elon Musk and major manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, the last decade has seen a fervent resurgence of interest in colonizing the fourth rock from the sun. Although this is now a tangible possibility, there is still a lot of preparation that needs to be done in order to accomplish this far-out goal. Much of this work is still in the research and development (R&D) phase — for now.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is operating based on a timeline that aims to establish a colonizing presence by 2023. NASA isn’t far behind, with a goal of getting humans on Mars by the 2030s. Soon, the conceptual designs that inventive engineers are currently developing will manifest into concrete plans, and manufacturers and logistics professionals alike will need to meet these exciting new challenges head-on, opening up an entirely new market on a new world.
In this two-part article series, we’ll explore the challenges we face in colonizing Mars, as well as the various ways in which these challenges are being approached from research and development, manufacturing, and supply chain perspectives.
Mars Ain’t the Kind of Place to Raise Your Kids: Environmental Challenges on Mars
While Earth and Mars do share a few similarities, their differences are much more apparent:
- Mars’ atmosphere is vastly different from Earth’s atmosphere. Earth has an oxygen-rich atmosphere with very little carbon dioxide, whereas Mars’ atmosphere is over 95% carbon dioxide, which is poisonous to humans.
- On Mars, the atmospheric pressure is too low for humans to survive without a pressure suit.
- Mars has a significantly weaker gravitational pull than Earth, which would likely lead to skeletal deterioration and atrophied muscles. Other health risks include cardiovascular problems, eyesight issues, and weakened immune systems.
- Due to the lack of a magnetosphere and the thin atmosphere, Mars is particularly vulnerable to radiation from cosmic rays, which can damage humans’ central nervous systems as well as DNA.
- While there is a significant amount of evidence that Mars was once home to an abundance of liquid water, and possibly still has hidden reserves deep beneath the surface, virtually all of the water is inaccessible. Furthermore, the water that is currently frozen in the polar ice caps cannot take liquid form due to the low atmospheric pressure.
Life on Mars: How R&D Is Making Colonization Possible
To deal with the lack of oxygen on Mars, NASA has developed MOXIE — the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. In 2020, a Mars rover will be sent to the Red Planet equipped with a fuel cell capable of performing electrolysis — the separation of carbon and oxygen carbon dioxide molecules. If successful, this experiment would allow oxygen to be produced from the carbon-dioxide atmosphere of Mars.
NASA also has teamed up with the University of Arizona to develop the Mars Lunar Greenhouse, a bioregenerative life support system (BLSS) that uses plants to create a sustainable existence by providing food, oxygen, water recycling, and waste recycling.
Other organizations, such as Mars One, have also been working on their own initiatives. Mars One’s Life support units are designed to use natural Martian resources in order to create a livable environment. One feature, for example, involves the use of photovoltaic panels to capitalize on the solar radiation that shines on Mars in order to generate electricity.
Mars One is also developing a plan to extract water from Mars' soil. With this method, the soil would be heated, forcing the water to evaporate. Once evaporated, the steam would be condensed and stored, while the dry soil would be discarded.
However, in order to accomplish any of these goals, sophisticated manufacturing and logistic practices will need to be in place. We’ll be exploring these practices in Part 2 of this series.
- To survive on Mars, we need a 'technology that replaces what the Earth does.' This tube might be NASA's best hope.
- The Prototype Lunar Greenhouse (LGH)
- Greenhouses for Mars
- Elon Musk has published a new study about his ambitious plans to colonize Mars with SpaceX
- NASA wants to send humans to Mars in the 2030s — here's the step-by-step timeline
- How to get water on Mars? UW researchers are working on a way to cook it out of soil
- NASA's 2020 Rover Will Be Manufacturing Oxygen On Mars
- Mars Base Camp
- Will the astronauts have enough water, food and oxygen?
- Life Support Unit
- Life Support Systems
- Underground Lake Found on Mars? Get the Facts.
- Water on Mars: Exploration & Evidence
- Oxygen-Generating Mars Rover to Bring Colonization Closer
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