Mad About Science: Colonizing Mars, Part 1

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Our subject today is too large to confine to a single page. Fortunately, the crew at the Reader tolerates my nonsense when I try to pull off something as wildly ambitious as a two-part Mad About Science series.

The idea of colonizing another planet is a pretty wild concept — it’s such a colossal endeavor that each individual person reading this article will envision the end goal of exoplanetary colonization in a different way. Will we terraform the entire surface to make a second Earth, or will we just populate the entire planet with futuristic dome-cities?

Courtesy image.

Others will scoff entirely at the idea, with my favorite Twitter-ism being, “We need to solve our problems as a society on Earth before we infect another planet.” 

Sorry to break it to everyone, but that’s not how society works. We as a society don’t devote unified attention to a single goal before moving onto the next one; that’s how a single human operates, while societies break up their problems for “teams” to handle in parallel. The same people building next-generation rockets are not the same people arguing about what does or doesn’t constitute a societal right in the halls of political power — though I think we can all agree that we need the latter to listen to the former more often.

Because of this added layer of complexity when talking about exoplanetary colonization, we’re going to gloss over the role that government and society plays in the whole matter and look only at what it would take, logistically and scientifically, to build a second home for the human race.

First, let’s compare the size of Earth and Mars. It’s difficult to understand the scale of something as far away as another planet, since images of Earth and Mars are often scaled to be the same size. Mars is a little more than half the size of Earth, with a diameter of about 4,200 miles. The lower 48 states of the United States stretch to be about 2,800 miles across, to give you a little perspective. 

Mars has about 0.6% of the atmosphere of Earth — an important feature that drastically influences our ability to build any sort of long-term habitat on the “red planet.” Because of the extremely thin atmosphere, the planet is unable to maintain a steady temperature, swinging from -220 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees F. Additionally, this lack of atmosphere allows larger amounts of solar and cosmic radiation to reach the planet’s surface, which is bad news for organic life.

Another hurdle to maintaining a habitable environment for humanity is that Mars’ core doesn’t rotate like Earth’s, which means the planet has a considerably weaker magnetosphere than our home planet, which also means that the radiation bombarding the planet’s surface tends to heat up lighter particles, such as oxygen and hydrogen, and allow them to float high up into the atmosphere before being stripped away and hurled into the vast expanse of space.

There is also the small problem of the distance between Earth and Mars. When speaking about planets, measuring in straight lines and static distances like we do on Earth is a waste of time — it’s something you do at dinner parties to impress your friends who don’t really understand astrophysics. 

At its nearest, Mars is about 34 million miles from Earth, while it sits somewhere around 245 million miles away at its farthest. Sending supplies to a colony on the red planet is more complicated than firing off a rocket in a straight line. The two planets’ orbits and proximity to one another must be considered, and calculations must be made to adjust for where the planets will be nine months after launch, which is the time it would take for a human mission to reach the planet. You thought your six-hour layover in SeaTac was bad? Imagine being stuck on a plane for nine months.

The flight is, in theory, one of the most dangerous parts of the trip. During this time, any defects in the ship’s polyethylene shielding could lead to severe long-term exposure to cosmic radiation, which would be similar to living inside an active X-ray chamber firing off shots at all times. This kind of exposure causes severe sickness, including rapid organ failure and an extremely heightened risk of cancer. Problems that are detected or form part-way through the flight aren’t as simple as turning the vehicle around. After the craft has reached escape velocity of Earth’s gravity well, slowing the vehicle down would alter its trajectory, potentially leaving the crew stranded in a perpetual solar orbit.

Descent and landing would likely be the most dangerous and tense time during a crew’s expedition. NASA famously dubbed the descent of the Curiosity Rover in 2012, as well as the Perseverance rover earlier this year, “seven minutes of terror.” The entry, descent and landing stage (EDL) takes place during the course of seven minutes; this means it takes longer for the radio transmission from NASA to travel to the craft than the entire process of entering the atmosphere and landing on the planet’s surface.

This would be mitigated by a manned crew, but if something were to go wrong, it would be impossible for the crew to call back to Earth for help. They would need to know what to do at the exact moment of any problem. If one should occur, Earth wouldn’t know for almost 10 minutes after the fact.

So what about the actual colonization? Where is all the cool, futuristic science-y stuff?

I guess you’ll just have to grab a Reader next week to find out.

Stay curious, 7B.

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