A biodome is a form of controlled, self-sufficient ecosystem. A famous example is the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK (1). And this family in Norway has managed to build and live in one (2). Here’s why building biodomes on Mars is a highly attractive concept.
A biodome is very similar to the conventional greenhouse, since both environments are controlled and allow all different types of plants to be cultivated. However, it differs in some important ways. Firstly, a greenhouse may or may not be isolated from the outside world, which means there could be an on-going exchange of elements such as fertiliser, water and oxygen with the outside world.
Image credit: Wikipedia
A biodome, on the other hand, is completely sealed off from the outside world. Everything is self-supported, with the life cycle processes continuing on their own. A biodome can also conserve energy and water, making it very sustainable, because of its regenerative nature.
We need a way to sustainably maintain life on the red planet, and biodomes will allow a Martian colony to do exactly that. We can also live sustainably on Mars by terraforming the planet (3). But this involves many immense challenges, whereas we already know how to build biodomes on Earth. While there are still definitely challenges involved in building and maintaining biodomes on Mars, the obstacles are not as daunting as those involved in changing the atmosphere of a planet.
There have been a number of proposals for how biodomes on Mars should be designed. Take this one from Tech Brief’s Create the Future Design Contest 2013 (4). The proposal suggests that buildings and houses can be situated inside the biodome, so that humans can live in it as well. Plants will supply the oxygen. And as for water, if the biodome is built on or near a large ice lake, the ice drilled can be filtered, turned into water, and then put into an artificial ‘water cycle’ (5). Wind turbines could supply the energy.
Also, when creating life-sustaining systems on Mars, there’s no reason not to mine both the atmosphere and regolith to help sustain the dome. Solar panels can be placed outside the dome for extra electricity, since wind turbines only work during storms. Arguably, there is little reason to have a completely closed system on a planet full of exploitable resources. So it may not be biodomes that we build on Mars after all, but greenhouses.
The most important thing is that the population within the dome is sustained in an environment similar to Earth’s. While biodomes may be more sustainable than greenhouses, this doesn’t mean that exploiting Mars for its natural resources in order to maintain greenhouses is unsustainable. In the same way, it’s not that using Earth’s natural resources is inherently unsustainable – it’s more to do with how we use those resources.
On Mars, it may be desirable to extract water (from the atmosphere, regolith and possibly aquifers or ice), nitrogen gas (from atmosphere) and nitrogen compounds (from regolith), and carbon dioxide (from atmosphere).
There are a lot of exciting technological developments taking place. NASA may put a greenhouse on Mars in 2021 (6), since in order to establish a long-term, sustainable base on Mars, you need to be able to grow plants there. Indeed, a prototype greenhouse for Mars has already been built (7). In less than a decade, we could very well be ready to live sustainably on the red planet.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.