Q&A on Colonizing Mars and Terraforming the Planet

Updated on September 16, 2019
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree and he enjoys studying, researching, and discussing fields of science, physics and philosophy.

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This article addresses the questions people ask about plans to colonize Mars eventually.

NASA is working on these plans. However, is it even possible? Will humans be able to survive on Mars? Our endurance in an environment that’s hostile to human life is questionable.

We need to address these issues:

  1. We need to protect ourselves from cosmic rays since there is no protection as we have on Earth.
  2. Mars has a different atmosphere that is not favorable to humans.
  3. We need to deal with a weaker gravity that will affect how we move around.

Nevertheless, scientists are conducting many studies of humans living on Mars. I’ll review the questions people have and examine the answers we already know.

Initial Considerations for Humans to Survive on Mars

The initial goal is to determine if Mars can support human life. We need to consider two things:

  1. How will humans handle the Mars environment?
  2. How will we get the resources to build communities on Mars?

Robotic missions with rovers found raw materials that could be used to construct communities so that we would not need to send these raw materials from Earth.

Mars is the most Earthlike planet in our Solar System, so it’s the best candidate for colonization. Over three billion years ago it was more like Earth is today, with life-supporting flowing water and a cosmic ray protective magnetic field. The planet lost both of these since then, but scientists have hope of terraforming Mars to bring it back to a human habitable condition, as I will discuss.

With the upcoming planned missions beginning in 2022, we may be able to start the long process of bringing some of the Earthlike environmental attributes back to the planet. The other issues, such as the danger of cosmic radiation, can be dealt with by other means.

Is There Water on Mars?

Water is most vital for life, and therefore, this is the utmost concern if we were to inhabit the planet.

Recent developments have provided the answer. NASA has been discovered water on the planet that could help sustain human life, but most of it is in the form of ice. It’s on the surface only at the northern pole of Mars.

Smaller amounts are available elsewhere as atmospheric water vapor, and even less exists in the Martian soil.1

Does Mars Have a Protective Magnetic Field?

We know that our survival on Earth is possible for many reasons. One of which is because we have a magnetosphere that diverts the dangerous solar particles and cosmic rays to the poles—away from inhabited areas on Earth.

Their entry into the atmosphere is what causes the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) and Aurora Australis (southern lights).

The magnetosphere is a magnetic field that exists because our planet has a metallic core. But what about Mars?

Mars had a magnetic field once. It was lost over 3.7 billion years ago, possibly due to multiple asteroid strikes that destroyed the dynamo effect of the planet’s internal magnetic core.2

That means we would need some other method to be protected from cosmic rays that are bombarding the planet.

The fact is that we would never be able to enjoy a day outside without protective suits. Even if there were an atmosphere, we still couldn’t go out without protection as we do on Earth.

All our daily activities would need to be inside buildings that protect us from cosmic rays while living on Mars. Possibly even building underground living quarters would be mandatory.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) | Source

Does Mars Have an Atmosphere?

Mars does have an atmosphere, but it is very different from our atmosphere on Earth, as shown in the table below.

Earth
Mars
Nitrogen (N): 78%
Carbon Dioxide (CO^2): 95.32%
Oxygen (O): 21%
Argon (Ar): 1.9%
Argon = (Ar): 0.93%
Nitrogen (N): 2.7%
Carbon Dioxide (CO^2): 0.04%
Oxygen (O): 0.13%
Neon (Ne): 0.001818%
Carbon Monoxide (CO): 0.08%
Helium (He): 0.000524%
Sulfur Dioxide (S): Trace amount
Methane (CH4): 0.000179%
Methane (CH4): Trace amount
Other gases: Trace amounts
Other gases: Trace amounts
How Does Earth’s and Mars’ Atmosphere Differ? Source: wikipedia.org

Can People Breathe on Mars?

The major part of the Earths atmosphere that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen and 21% Oxygen, while the atmosphere on Mars is 95% Carbon Dioxide. That’s great for plants, which absorb Carbon Dioxide for photosynthesis in sunlight to produce oxygen. However, Humans need oxygen to breathe and provide energy to our cells.

Even if we can breathe the air, the chemical makeup that I described above is not conducive to human survival. Besides, the pressure of its atmosphere is so low that water boils at the temperature of the human body. Humans will lose consciousness when exposed at that level—known as the Armstrong Limit.

The atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level is 14.69 psi. The average pressure on Mars is 0.087 psi. Humans definitely could not survive at this low pressure. We would always have to spend our time in a pressurized environment.3

How Does Gravity on Mars Compare to the Earth?

Gravity on Mars is generally only 38% that on Earth. Therefore, if you weight 170 lbs on Earth, you’d be 65 lbs on Mars.

Gravity is a result of the attraction between masses. The larger the mass of an object, the stronger will be its gravity.

The gravity of the Sun keeps all the planets circling it in our solar system without flying away into the outer limits of the galaxy. The gravitational pull of the planets also holds their moons in orbit.

Since Mars is smaller than Earth, as shown in the image below, its gravity is weaker. You might have seen videos of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Their footing was strange as every step they took sent them hovering for a moment due to the weaker gravity.

That would not be the same when walking on Mars since it's much bigger than our moon. Nevertheless, it still would be very different from the firm footing we’ve developed since learning to walk as toddlers.

The discussion of gravity becomes very complex mathematically and is beyond the scope of this article. The reason why it’s not simple is that the gravitational pull is weaker the higher you go, away from the center of mass. That becomes more complex on Mars because its southern hemisphere has less mass than its northern hemisphere.4

It’s essential to consider these gravity anomalies when planning to bring equipment and supplies to Mars for future colonization.

Size Comparison of Earth and Mars
Size Comparison of Earth and Mars | Source

How Cold Is Mars?

Since Mars is approximately 142 million miles from the Sun, it’s colder than Earth, which is only 94.47 million miles from the Sun.

The average temperature of Mars is -85° Fahrenheit (-65° Celsius). That is extremely cold for humans. However, when you consider that Venus gets as hot as 867° Fahrenheit (464° Celsius) and Neptune gets as cold as -328° Fahrenheit (-200° Celsius), Mars is within the sweet spot.5 It’s within a range that we can deal with using present-day equipment within the living quarters.

In the summer, the temperature on Mars can warm up to -24° Fahrenheit (-31° Celsius). Still quite cold, but livable.

We still have a lot to learn about the evolutionary history of Mars, and we’ll learn much more when we colonize the planet. We already know that it went through global cooling at least once—bringing it to the state it’s in now.

What Can We Learn From Mars About Global Warming?

Mars has already gone through global cooling. Now, using satellite equipment, NASA has discovered that Mars is going through a warming trend.6

Earth may have the same history. Our vision of global warming is misleading. In the 4.6 billion years of the Earth’s evolution, the human race has only been here 35,000 years, and you and I have been here much less than 100 years. So we haven’t experienced the constant repetition of the Earth freezing, and then warming to the point of global flooding, then back to freezing again.

We are now into the fifth ice age in the present glacial period. But who’s counting? Within and between each glacial period the Earth has repeatedly fluctuated from greenhouse to icehouse.7

Since our lives are in such a short period along the entire timeline of existence, we imagine that the present global warming is the only one that ever happened.

Some people claim we are causing global warming. That’s a nearsighted assumption because the Earth already went through four periods of global warming and global cooling over 4.6 billion years.

We may indeed be responsible for climate change, but polluting the environment has a more immediate effect on our survival.

  1. We are putting toxins into the air that bring about disease and respiratory ailments.
  2. We are dumping plastics into our oceans that fish eat and they become our food—so that we ingest plastic into our bodies.

Is It Possible to Make Mars Habitable for Humans?

I feel that we need to get our own house in order before we can succeed in making Mars inhabitable. We haven’t been doing such a great job on Earth, keeping it suitable for our continued existence. Have we? So how can we expect to do the right thing to transform Mars?

Scientists are already examining ways to transform Mars by creating greenhouse gases that could increase the pressure of the atmosphere well above the Armstrong Limit (Which I spoke about earlier).

The plan is to transform Mars over time to become more like that of Earth to be favorable to humans.

This process is known as terraforming. It’s still hypothetical, but it would allow for sustainable colonization of Mars.

Source

What Is Terraforming and Is It Possible?

In a 1961 article in the Science Journal, astronomer Carl Sagan proposed an idea to influence the global environment of Venus.8 Scientists are now considering that for Mars, with the process of terraforming the planet by planting trees and other vegetation.

Terraforming would require enough CO2 and water vapor for trees to flourish and bring the oxygen level up to 21% as we have on Earth. Mars’ atmosphere does have 95% CO2 already, so the idea seems feasible.9

Some types of trees may withstand the colder temperatures on Mars. Apple trees, for example, are known to grow in cold climates and survive under a blanket of snow. Scientists are already experimenting with growing plants in Mars soil on the International Space Station.10

In addition to planting trees to produce oxygen, which will take hundreds of years before humans can breathe the air, other technologies are available that can produce oxygen.

How Can We Make Oxygen on Mars?

An experimental process called solid oxide electrolysis will be able to produce pure oxygen from the carbon dioxide that’s present in the Martian atmosphere. Since there is an abundant 95% supply of CO2 available, this can have significant results.

The experiment is named MOXIE (Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment).11

It will be implemented as a scale model 1% normal size on a robotic Mars rover planned for launch in 2020 in preparation for the upcoming Mars missions.

How Is NASA Preparing for the Journey to Mars?

Since 2015, NASA has been putting a lot of attention to all the prerequisites necessary for a successful mission.12 They have used robotic pathfinders, such as rovers Spirit and Opportunity, to map the surface of Mars and find destinations for upcoming human missions. These rovers do the following jobs:

  • Collect surface samples
  • Conduct seismic investigations
  • Locate potential landing sites
  • Test developed technology systems
  • Select human-accessible landing sites
  • Position required infrastructure

More recently, NASA has been preparing the following technological tools necessary for the journey to Mars and for supporting humans living on Mars. Costs as minimized by working with innovative partnerships:

  • Deep-space atomic clocks for precise navigation
  • Solar electric propulsion with advanced ion thrusters
  • Laser communications for high data rate transmission
  • Entry Defense and Landing (EDL) Systems
  • Nuclear fission for Mars surface power
  • Habitation systems for Mars inhabitants

Mars Rover Curiosity
Mars Rover Curiosity | Source

Who Is Funding the Mission?

Initially, Mars One offered private funding for a permanent human settlement on Mars. That was a combination of two entities:

  1. Mars One Foundation: A Dutch non-profit company
  2. Mars One Ventures: A Swiss publicly-traded company

However, on January 15, 2019, the organization was liquidated and now-defunct based on a court decision due to poor planning of logistics and medical concerns for the inhabitants.13

However, Mars-bound cargo flights are being planned for as early as 2022 with funding by SpaceX (Founded in California by Elon Musk), using their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launcher.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen going forward since the defunct Mars One Foundation was to manage the mission and train the crew. And Mars One Ventures owned the rights to its merchandise, ads, video content, broadcasting rights, and other intellectual property.14

We’ll see what happens by 2020 and beyond. We’ll know soon enough if all this will progress as planned.

Who Would Go to Mars?

The idea of the average person deciding to move to Mars is far fetched, and I don’t think it will ever be a reality. It will also never be considered for casual space travel.

The only people going are those directly related to scientific studies. They would be willing to make a one-way trip to build a community for the future survival of the human race in case Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Living on Mars will never be similar to that on Earth. A method to protect the human body from cosmic radiation will continue to be a concern, requiring special living quarters and protective suits when venturing outdoors. Possibly underground communities might be the solution.

Source

How Will Human Colonization of Mars Be Done?

If all goes well and the mission continues as planned, it will be done in phases:

  • A cargo mission with a robotic lander and orbiter by 2022.
  • Transport of a methane/oxygen propellant plant to be assembled on Mars.
  • A human crew of four astronauts will follow in 2024 and another in 2026.
  • Additional men and women will follow throughout the 2030s.

Construction and colonization plans will continue beyond 2024 to accommodate the growth of a human population.15

Permanent Settlement:

The astronauts would not be returning to Earth. Some people in academia call this a suicide mission. However, if they succeed at living out their lives on Mars, I would consider it a relocation plan. The purpose, after all, is a permanent Mars settlement of a human colony.

Those who go will have accepted the fact that they will have no family or friends other than the crew involved in the mission. Survival in case of illness will be dependent on the team that will include a doctor and surgeon.

Robotic surgery can be performed remotely by surgeons on Earth. We have that type of equipment and technology now already, such as the “da Vinci Surgical System" used for prostate surgery. The only issue is the 20-minute delay with data transmission. However, that might be solvable with autonomous surgery. That could handle tasks during delays with remote control.16

Environment:

Specific nutrients that are useful for human colonization have also been found. And the existence of liquid water has been confirmed.17

Based on these findings, there is more hope that Mars is a suitable candidate for the development of a colony for human civilization.

Nevertheless, I can think of other concerns that come to mind. We’ve evolved with characteristics conducive to living on Earth. We might have unforeseen health issues living on Mars. Besides, it would be boring being one of the first to voyage out there, especially before completing terraforming. Imagine being cooped up in a life support capsule the rest of our days!

Long-Term Plan:

It’s not a plan to be accomplished in a single human lifetime. That’s not the idea. The goal is to develop a place for the human race to survive if the Earth should one day become uninhabitable. That could happen by our destructive tendencies or by external forces such as a meteor collision. It’s a long-range goal that will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to reach its full potential.

Would you go to Mars to settle there for the rest of your life if given the opportunity?

See results

References

  1. Water on Mars - Wikipedia
  2. Lisa Grossman. (Jan 20, 2011). "Multiple Asteroid Strikes May Have Killed Mars's Magnetic Field." Wired.com
  3. Atmosphere of Mars - Wikipedia
  4. Gravity of Mars - Wikipedia
  5. Planetary Fact Sheet. NASA.gov
  6. Ruth Marlaire. (May 14, 2007). "A Gloomy Mars Warms Up." NASA.gov
  7. Greenhouse and icehouse Earth - Wikipedia
  8. Carl Sagan. (March 1961). "The Planet Venus". Science, Volume 133, Issue 3456, pp. 849-858
  9. Terraforming of Mars - Wikipedia
  10. Gary Jordan. (August 7, 2017). "Can Plants Grow with Mars Soil?" NASA.gov
  11. Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment - Wikipedia
  12. Journey to Mars. (October 8, 2015). NASA.gov
  13. Mars One - Wikipedia
  14. About Mars One. www.mars-one.com
  15. Colonization of Mars - Wikipedia
  16. Meera Senthilingam. (May 12, 2016). “Would you let a robot perform your surgery by itself?” CNN.com
  17. Life on Mars - Wikipedia

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Glenn Stok

    Comments

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      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        5 months ago from Florida

        The benefits would far outweigh the costs.

        The knowledge gained, the technology invented, will only be achieved by the journey.

        Perhaps the efforts to convert the CO2 rich atmosphere will lead to discoveries and knowledge that helps Earth's issues with CO2.

        The argument to focus all our efforts on activities here on Earth are shortsighted. That is akin to saying "I'm not leaving my house until I am physically perfect, know everything there is to know, etc." That day is never going to come.

        Our ability to expand humanities horizons, change what we believe to be possible, and get beyond our petty tribal differences will not come until we move ourselves beyond this planet, and that first step is Mars... which may eventually lead to going much further, beyond the solar system even, but that is not even a possibility if we do not take that first step off of Earth.

      • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        5 months ago from Long Island, NY

        Heidi Thorne - You hit upon a very important point. The forces of nature and the enormous physical phenomenon of the universe will always stand in the way of anything we hope to accomplish in the long-term. Eventually our own Sun will die, and whatever we do to extend the existence of the human race on another planet will effectively be in vain.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        5 months ago from Chicago Area

        Well, this is a very thoughtful and detailed discussion of the topic!

        I do think humanity will, one day, make it to Mars to visit and maybe colonize/terraform. But there are so many issues, technical and human, that need to be worked out.

        I do agree that we need to clean up our act on Earth before we go someplace else. I also agree that while humans have had negative impact on our planet and atmosphere, we are just in the midst of yet another ice/greenhouse cycle. To think that we can totally impact or even control all of Earth's and our solar system's forces is sheer hubris. That should also give us pause to consider how much we could or should tame another planet to accommodate our habitation.

        Thanks for this interesting read!

      • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        5 months ago from Long Island, NY

        Thank you everyone for your mindful comments. It’s clear that you all have a keen grasp of the undertaking.

      • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        5 months ago from Long Island, NY

        Ken Burgess - You explained it very well Ken. Yes, our concept of humanity will change once we have a few people living on Mars. The experience through their eyes will give us a whole new feeling about where we are, how we treat others, and where we're going. Thanks so much for you expressive comment.

      • Stella Kaye profile image

        Stella Kaye 

        5 months ago from UK

        Excellent article. My own opinion is that humans need to sort their own planet out first before considering the establishment of extra-terrestrial colonies. Earth offers the best environment to be found anywhere, yet humans have completely messed it up in less than a couple of centuries. They have polluted the air, the land and the sea and depleted natural resources and habitat. Even if it is possible to live on Mars, proper management of Earth should come first.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        5 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I can't quite imagine people living on Mars, even though they have solved some of the numerous problems. I agree with your opinion. I imagine somewhere in another galaxy there is a planet similar to ours, but we can't travel that far at this time. Anyway, it would not be for me.

      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        5 months ago from Florida

        I think this is the greatest challenge, and the highest goal humanity can currently set for itself.

        Colonizing Mars successfully means we can move beyond Earth, it means we are not limited to Earth, and this would change everything... our perceptions of who we are, what our future is, what is possible, what can be achieved all changes when we successfully colonize Mars.

        It also makes us a bit more in control of our destiny, and not subject to the whims of fate, our species might not end because a stray meteor hits earth, or a burst of radiation from the sun penetrates the ozone for a moment long enough to fry our civilization.

        It doesn't have to be a massive colonization, they could successfully build a colony in a lava tube large enough to protect them from the Sun and the worst of the elements.

        The plans would be to become self-sufficient there, perhaps terraforming part of the planet eventually, but initial small steps which could lead to bigger ones in a generation or two.

        Elon Musk and others have stated we should consider Mars not just a stepping stone to the stars, but as a back-up for potential disaster that devastates Earth, having the ability to return from mars and re-establish civilization is a great insurance plan to have, because right now, there is none... and if something goes wrong on Earth today, civilization is done for, and we may well be knocked back to the stone age.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        This is a very thorough and interesting article. You have tackled the question very well, posing and answering other questions as you work through the subject. Science fiction becomes reality.

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