Elon Musk plans to colonise Mars (1) – but what would life be like on the red planet? Last September, SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave a keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. In his speech, he laid out his ambitious plans to get humans to Mars by 2022.
Colonising Mars is no easy task (2). Musk estimated that the current cost of sending someone to Mars is “around $10bn per person”. And there are all sorts of other logistical hurdles involved. But, if we want to expand into the Solar System, we’ll need to find out how to live on other planets. And compared to the other celestial bodies, the red planet is the best candidate.
Image credit: Wikipedia
A backup home
If climate catastrophe strikes (3), Earth could be well on its way to becoming inhospitable to life (4). As abhorrent as the situation is – and while all possible efforts should be taken to avoid further damage – a backup location for humanity may be necessary (5). And even if Mars doesn’t become a backup home, we may still need to travel there for additional resources, such as precious metals.
Surviving on Mars
If Mars is the natural destination for a human colony, how are we meant to survive on a planet that is hostile to human life? There is extreme cold, an unbreathable atmosphere and intense radiation. While all of this may be true, the ingenuity of humanity may allow us to overcome these difficulties.
In order to deal with the lack of air pressure and cold, we will need pressurised and heated habitats (Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitats are a contender; 6). We’ll also require spacesuits whenever we go outside.
Luckily, Mars does provide some raw materials. The regolith (the material that covers the surface of a planet) could be used to make concrete. And to protect us from the radiation, there are cave systems that could be converted into underground habitats.
For a long-term stay, we’ll have to find some way to extract water from underground supplies, and use that to generate breathable air and rocket fuel. We’ll also have to grow our own food, as it won’t be feasible to ship it all in on a regular basis. Although the Martian soil is toxic, it can be used to grow plants once it is supplemented and the harsher chemicals are removed.
We may also have to experiment with genetic engineering, to ensure that our offspring, as well as plants and animals, can adapt to the low gravity, higher radiation and lower air pressure. Terraforming Mars is also a possibility, whereby the surface and climate of Mars is changed to make areas of the planet hospitable to humans (7). However, this process could take thousands or even millions of years.
There are also challenges involved in the journey to Mars. It is not yet clear if deep space radiation will degrade the food that future Mars explorers take with them (8).
Law and order on Mars
Just because Mars hasn’t been colonised yet, this doesn’t mean some rules haven’t been put in place. The Outer Space Treaty outlines what can and cannot be done in relation to the red planet (9).
First of all, Mars belongs to everybody. The treaty underscores that no-one can own a celestial body. And although Musk wants to terraform Mars by nuking it (well, the sky above the planet; 10), this isn’t allowed – colonists can’t deploy weapons of mass destruction.
Frans von der Dunk, who studies space law, says private companies can go to Mars, build permanent habitats, and start a new society there – as long as they follow the rules of the Outer Space Treaty. For example, the company’s activities shouldn’t interfere with activities of others in space. Another rule is to avoid contaminating celestial bodies that we explore. This includes keeping the Solar System free from trash, and the planet free from our microbes.
Also, because SpaceX is an American colony, and Musk’s colonists would be travelling on an American ship, they would have to abide by American laws. It’s a lot like maritime laws, where no-one owns international waters, but each ship follows the rules of the country whose flag it flies under.
Although there are already some rules in place, we still don’t know what kind of government will be formed on Mars. But that’s the least of our worries right now. Our top priority is figuring out how to safely get to Mars, and then being able to survive in a viable habitat.
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.