SpaceX has argued that reusability is the key to making human life inter-planetary (1). Having rockets that are fully and rapidly reusable will not only save costs in terms of space exploration, but it will make the endeavour all the more sustainable.
On 21 December 2015, SpaceX achieved the biggest cost reduction in space flight history (2). They sent a rocket to space and then returned it to Earth, completely intact. While this is isn’t as impressive as it going all the way to Mars and returning intact, ready for reuse, this achievement has massive implications. SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes this will make a big difference in helping to set up human colonies on Mars.
Normally on its return to Earth, a rocket (or most of it at least) will land in the ocean, never to be seen again. Imagine if the aircraft industry did this with every flight. Flying to another country would soon become very expensive (around £1.2m per economy class seat!) But not only that: flying would become even less sustainable than it currently is.
NASA has welcomed Musk’s plans to colonise Mars (3). In a statement they said:
“We are very pleased that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars.”
There are, of course, many challenges in humans living on Mars sustainably. After all, we don’t want to repeat the mistakes made with our current home (4).
One issue with colonising Mars is being able to harvest water in sufficient amounts for long-term survival. Harvesting water will require massive amounts of energy, which many doubt is sustainable (5).
However, we also continue to learn that the Red Planet is rich with resources (6). It simply won’t be cost effective to launch resources such as water and materials to Mars. Indeed, if Mars is to become a long-term or permanent settlement, then we will need to harness technology in order to sustainably use the Red Planet’s existing resources.
Image credit: Wikipedia
In 2016, NASA released a paper titled ‘Frontier In-Situ Resource Utilization for Enabling Sustained Presence on Mars’, which argues we’re close to developing technology that would be need to extract resources with robotic systems (7). From the paper:
“In recent years, measurements by rovers and satellites at Mars have indicated massive amounts of water in the form of ice beneath and within the regolith. At times, during the Martian year, liquid water is observed on the surface of Mars. If the planet were flat and the ice melted, there would be an ocean many meters deep on the entire planet. These huge deposits of water can be extracted in several ways and combined with the large amounts of carbon residing in the 95% CO2 atmosphere to produce life support fluids, fuels, oxidizers, and plastics for equipment, including rovers and spare parts.”
Extracting sufficient amounts of water and carbon is key, since both can produce materials and fuels that are essential for survival. Minerals are also in abundance, including iron, titanium, nickel, aluminium, sulphur, chlorine and calcium. The most common material found on Mars has been silicon dioxide, the basic constituent of glass, which can be easily produced using sand-melting techniques.
Food will have to be produced in a “protected atmosphere using sunlight”, or perhaps an artificial light source. Possible food sources that could be grown on the Red Planet include “mushrooms, insects, cyanobacteria (e.g. spirulina) and duckweed, along many others.” There is also the possibility of developing a “rice paddy aquaculture”.
At the same time, long-term survival depends on extracting resources in a sustainable way. But if we can live sustainably on Mars, this could have huge implications for Earth, as University of Sheffield student Gillian Finnerty explains (8). Finnerty says that “Overpopulation is the biggest problem we have and we will eventually run out of food.” She continues:
If we go to Mars and live in a sustainable manner then it will prove to the people on Earth you can live well without being greedy. It will hopefully inspire people to not take Earth for granted.
So instead of Mars just becoming a backup home – a means of preserving the human race when our current home ‘expires’ – it might become a platform in which humanity can prove how to live sustainably on Earth.
To show your commitment to living sustainably, join Red Planet Nutrition’s #FastforEarth campaign. Intermittent fasting is an effective way to improve your health and reduce the environmental impact of overconsumption.
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.