Can we really colonise MARS?

places-to-live-mars-6Elon Musk has outlined his plan to send one million people off to colonize Mars. Not only is he being sincere about this ambition, but he also has a viable plan to get there.

The astronomer Phil Plait has written a response to Mr Musk’s plans in Slate, and as you read it, you can almost hear Phil’s enthusiasm and excitement positively dripping off the page …

Watching that I felt like I was seeing an updated version of movies I used to watch as a kid. But having thought it over, I have to say that what Musk is planning is doable. Yes, seriously. The engineering challenge is formidable, but technically possible.

There are four critical engineering steps needed to make all this a reality: The rocket must be fully reusable, the spaceship (the section that will actually go to Mars with people and supplies) must be refilled with fuel and oxygen on orbit, the right propellant must be used, and there must be a means of making that propellant on Mars itself.

None of these is easy. Not by a long shot. But they are possible.

It’s a good read, I recommend it. He digs into just how viable it all might be.

OK, I’m biased. I remember Phil from his days as president of the JREF and really enjoyed sitting in the front row listening to his now famous “Don’t be a dick” speech.

Meanwhile, we still have the issue of where we might live once we get there.

Nick Lavars covers that and has three suggestions ..

The fact of the matter is that there are tens, if not hundreds of potential Mars landing sites being bandied about by scientists concerned with such endeavors. At a NASA workshop last October, hundreds of researchers from around the world debated the strengths and weaknesses of 48 strong candidates

He then goes on to propose these three and explains why for each …

  • The depths of Valles Marineris
  • Gale Crater
  • The mysterious Medusae Fossae Formation

Now the skeptical bit

I have no desire to toss a spanner in the works for its own sake, but there are a few rather practical issues that really do need to be seriously considered and cannot simply be swept under the carpet.

There is simply no viable solution on the table for some of the practical problems.


Radiation in space is a real problem, so how will they shield the victims volunteers from it on the journey there?

Air Pressure

Once on MARS. how can they possibly survive?

Getting them oxygen to breath is of course a rather obvious issue, but it is not that simple, Mars does not just lack oxygen, it also lacks pressure and is only about 0.6% of what we find at sea level here. That is not just 6%, but is zero-point-six 0.6%.

Imagine flying at 30,000 ft and the windows blowing out – there is oxygen, but you still die because the air is too thin. Oh but wait the 0.6% pressure on Mars is not equivalent to 30,000 ft, but rather 100,000 ft, it really is that thin.


This one might not appear to be a concern, but it really is one.

The day may indeed by only 40 mins longer than ours, and so that sounds like no big deal, but we know what actually happens when you switch to this time-cycle. The folks working at NASA on the MSL switch to Mars time and that involves starting your day 40 minutes later each and every day 9:00, then 9:40 then 10:20 and so on, it soon adds up … they find that they can only sustain this pattern for about 3 months maximum and then have to stop.

Side note: yes, the MSL team members doing this do actually wear a special Mars time watch.


Dealing with the temperature is also a really big deal. The average temperature on the surface is -55 C (that’s -67F). If you are going to practise living on Mars then you should be building your habitat simulator in the Antarctic in winter.

In summary

In other words, just getting there is just the first of many many problems. If a permanent colony is really going to happen then there needs to be real solutions, not just for getting there, but also for the many other issues that abound.

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