SUMMERS: What Happens Once People Land On Mars?

Michael Summers | Professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy

NASA robotic missions to Mars have revealed a world with an amazingly complex history, including periods in which it was much warmer, with oceans, volcanoes, and was habitable for many types of simple Earth life.

Even now, Mars still has abundant subsurface water and organic compounds. NASA is planning a human mission to Mars for the early to mid-2030s, and if our history of space exploration is any guide, Mars will have many interesting surprises in store for the first humans to set foot there.

A human mission to Mars will be complex, expensive, and very dangerous. Sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, will be among the most difficult projects ever undertaken. But what should happen after that first step?

The most obvious first task in developing an extended presence on Mars is reconnaissance — probably carried out with extensive use of miniature drones. It will be essential that we map and evaluate all possible resources that could be useful. These resources will include water – whether ice in the top few meters below the surface or liquid water that would exist deeper. Naturally occurring materials such as metals can be used in construction of habitats, tools, fuel, etc.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity scientists recently announced the discovery of complex organics in the soil. These organic compounds would be essential for hydroponics, as Mark Whatley did in wonderful, and reasonable accurate, movie The Martian. As a side-product of growing green planets is that photosynthesis will provide a source of oxygen for breathing.

The early Mars colonists will be intently focused upon building safe, resilient and sustainable habitats. Whenever humans leave the Earth, they must take along a bubble of Earth’s environment, which includes breathable air. Mars has an atmosphere, but it is only about 1 percent of the air pressure that exists at sea level on Earth.

Furthermore, the atmosphere on Mars is almost entirely carbon dioxide (CO2). There is only a very tiny amount of oxygen — the most important gas that humans need. Fortunately, it is relatively straightforward to make oxygen from water, and we now know that Mars has abundant water — present as a permafrost layer underneath much of the surface.

There are several dangers that would face the colonists. These include micrometeorites, which burn up in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun that is blocked by our stratospheric ozone layer on Earth. Mars does not have such an ozone layer. So habitats must be shielded, and perhaps built in naturally occurring caves and lava tubes.

Imagine an opportunity of building an entirely new world from scratch! As long as the colony is safe and resilient, and as long as the resources are available, almost anything could be possible. Mars could provide a venue for experimenting with new types of government, education, societal structures or even recreation. Ultimately, once colonies are stable, Mars itself could be used as a base for further exploration of the outer solar system.

As the early colonists develop a more robust presence, they will then be able to devote more effort to establishing further goals. These might include the development of profitable industries for trade with Earth, or experimenting with new technologies that might have applications for life on Earth. They could search for life underneath the surface of Martian — as has been suggested by the methane plumes that are emitted seasonally from the underground — or in the nearby asteroid belt or the moons of Jupiter.

Imagine the new types of recreation that might be possible on Mars. Imagine skiing down the slopes of Olumpus Mons — the largest (extinct) volcano in the solar system — where the ski slopes are hundreds of miles long. Imagine hang-gliding from cliffs six miles high! On Mars the intrepid explorer might delve into caves (ancient lava tubes) that are hundreds of meters across.

Perhaps the most exciting recreation will be exploring that new world. Who knows what we will find there!

Michael Summers is a professor of planetary science and astronomy at George Mason University.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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