Monday, 25 May 2015

Colonisation of Mars (No, I am not going Crazy)

There are four terrestrial planets in the Solar system - Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Mercury is tiny, fast moving and moon-like world; barren and covered with the scars of many meteor strikes. The thinnest atmosphere there is in the System can do little to protect it from the bombardment of the space debris.

Venus is one angry goddess. Virtually a sister terrestrial planet to Earth, it has a run-away greenhouse effect. Covered with a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere with toxic layers of sulphuric acid at high altitudes, the pressure is much greater than that of Earth and temperature averages 400 Centigrades on the ground. Mapped by active volcanoes this is one inhospitable world, where even a single organic molecule won't survive.

In comparison our own world - Earth, should have really been called 'Oceania', occupies the Goldilocks's Zone - the thin band of space, not too close and not too far away from the Sun where biology can function. It is an established fact in science today, that where life can arise it arises. We are no accident.

And finally the Red Planet.
Mars' radius is approximately twice as small as than of Earth. It's gravitational field is roughly a third of a g. It's atmosphere is almost entirely made from carbon dioxide and it's pressure is a one percent of Earth's at sea level. The most dramatic known terrestrial formations occur here. The Olympus Mons is the tallest volcano in the Solar system. The Valles Marineris - the largest canyon; the biggest desserts, virtually covering all land stretching from South to North pole, scarred by ancient river beds. Mars is a huge world with no oceans and it's land surface is only slightly less than Earth's total dry land area.
The rich history of Mars speaks of times when the atmosphere was thicker and there were oceans of liquid water. Unfortunately the rsmaller planet cooled quicker - comparable to our own, weakening it's magnetosphere and allowing the Sun's deadly radiation to bathe it with rays that stripped away the layers of gases covering the planet. Additionally weaker gravitational field helped to let part of the Martian proto-atmosphere escape into space and so the planet's surface is frozen over the course of billions of years. It's once active volcanoes seized to thunder and Mars gradually fell into geological silence, although geologists themselves say that in terms of longevity in their discipline that happened 'yesterday'. The temperature of modern Mars can go as high as twenty Centigrades on the equator during high summer, or as low as minus hundred fifty three on the poles during winter. During perihelion(the period closest to the Sun) the planet is swept by global dust storms.
Scientists still hope to find life on Mars. In the deeper, still hot depths of the planet. Or at least signs of ancient life locked into fossils.
But to achieve any of these feats we will need to send more than just robotic rovers with limited functions to the surface of Mars.
There is a lot of merit for the Earth-based civilisation of humans to establish bases on Mars. In the long run those will grow to full fledged and self sufficient colonies, but will start off as can habitats dropped from low Martian orbit; mostly scientific in purpose. 
The famous Space Exploration Initiative of the eighties estimated a cost of over $450 billion but Doctor Robert Zubrin famously reduced that price tag to merely fifty billion.
The reason behind it is that the ninety day report from NASA came up with a plan to establish a moon base first and then an orbital construction deck and from there build a large inter-planetary cruiser capable of supporting larger populations.
A more modern and realistic Mars Direct plan (after many modifications) established a different approach. An unmanned habitat, carrying only enough propellant to escape Earth, would be send first. All scientific equipment and means to survive the time spent on Mars would be loaded on board. Another vehicle, again carrying only enough propellant to escape orbit will deposit a small Ascent Vehicle(capable of escaping Mars orbit). A propellant production plant would be housed on the AV(ascent vehicle) plus a large container of hydrogen from Earth. That plant would start producing methane from the Martian atmosphere together with the hydrogen, producing fuel for the trip back and drinkable water as a side product. A third vehicle would be launched that will not land on the Martian surface but will orbit the planet in a Lagrangian point. It will be the Earth return Vehicle, waiting for the ground crew to arrive from the Martian surface. The cycle is repeated, but this time the first habitat is manned by crew. Telemetry would have already established the safety of both the production plant on the ground and the orbital return station in space. If there are any faults, measures can be taken beforehand. 
After landing and performing the scientific tasks the crew would use the small ascent vehicle, which would be loaded with enough propellant to make it back to Earth. That will connect with Earth return vehicle in high orbit, transfer the propellant and launch on a trip back home. The whole operation would last roughly nine hundred days. In the mean time another round of the same cycle would be launched. After each cycle there would be more space available to take various and useful equipment to the growing Mars base, essentially building a small camp on the surface that can start the extraction and production of some more varied fuels and substances that will allow the full exploration of Mars to be carried out in due time. After many cycles the self subsistence of the base will have grown and it will have slowly transformed into a colony, deriving ever more useful materials from the environment; gradually growing plants under domes; extracting water and do an all-around Martian trip with special ground vehicles. There are more than a few technicalities concerning all of this, but the most important one is 'Why do it all?'.

Educability, innovation and improvisation are arguably the most important perks we have in terms of survival as a specie. Collectively we have created a civilisation that has an ever more growing accessible data-base of information. Although abject poverty still exists, the range of people who have their basic needs met is increasing, even of somehow slowly in recent years. The modern phenomenon of global GDP rising, private wealth concentrating with paces faster than the growth of economy is indeed disturbing, but there is space for optimism. 
The technical development needed for the growth of space programs has been theoretically established, but many obstacles have stood in its proliferation. The most obvious is lack of political leadership, pessimism and funds diversion. The technology spawning from it will not only create more jobs but it will introduce economising measures and modern approaches to using resources as well as applied and industrial sciences that will help the growing economy worldwide. The modern chemical rocket, for instance still uses the same methods of propulsion since World War II but their costs can be driven down by newly developed technologies. In time the least useful way of propulsion (the same chemical engines we use today) will be replaced by faster, cheaper and more economical vehicles that use fuel more efficiently and carry us farther for less. 
Not only will newer technologies (scram jets, ion drives, ect.), that have been on the scientists' drawing boards be cheaper but it will help to reinvigorate against the stagnation that is slowly creeping back into our society. However, the initial costs would be high - money wise. An interesting point to mention is that during the eighties of the last century some forward looking scientists were expecting the modern smart phone to become available. They were making prognoses that Mars would be visited by humans by 2010, and bases be established by 2020. None as of yet.
Tight schedules save money and close deadlines could possibly drive innovation; they are hard work either way - for researchers, engineers, scientists, politicians and taxpayers alike. A lot of development is needed to efficiently bring down costs for space travel and the initial research will come at a high price. The technology thus produced will be initially expensive, but over time it will bring vast economical savings. It has become thus possible to postpone the otherwise useful technological progress in time as the task at hand is viewed in light of utmost importance and the long term benefits are lost in the hindsight of events. Space programmes have already sufficiently suffered from over bureaucratising their operations. Like the Apollo missions, for instance. It is likely that the same mistake will not be made again.
So apart from developing technology, innovation and producing cheaper and more efficient devices that will help industrial progress around the globe in time, what else is there in the colonisation of Mars?

The red planet is richer in some important elements and minerals than the scavenged for thousands of years Earth. Some of the fundamentally needed materials for our civilisation are readily available on Mars and present in the soil. The prices for extraction of those materials will be, surprisingly, lower than that on Earth, because the infrastructure on Earth is already developed on mid second millennium and is oriented towards a different kind of industry than that of modern Earth. This means that modern Earth is not as efficient at using it's resources and that future Mars settlements will be established based on economy that uses advanced technology. For instance geothermal power will probably be omnipresent on the red planet and settlements will be developed around geothermal-rich sites for economising energy. Mars-produced solar panels(silicon is readily available there) will be deploy-able and also exportable. The initial conditions of scarcity will drive the population of Mars towards innovation and progress rather than bureaucracy and stagnation. It is likely that Martian technology and social order will renovate that of Earth and the examples of the forefront of exploration will serve to rejuvenate the old world. Just remember the example of the UK during the seventeenth century and that of the US during nineteenth. Both societies bet heavily on development and science and not only did it serve to secure them number one position in the world but also in a human generation the technology created proliferated around the world. The colonisation of the new world had approximately the same costs for Medieval Europe as the colonisation of Mars today has for humanity but that not only did not stop the propagation of exploration but it rewarded those willing to invest. Looking from today's point of view, the mistakes of Napoleon and Tsarist Russia concerning the growing new America are viewed in light of lack of foresight. Will the same lack of foresight be evident in our society from the point of view of future humans two hundreds years in the future? 
Another, perhaps not so famous aspect is that it is much easier and cheaper to reach the asteroid belt from Mars. Obviously a lot less time and fuel are needed to fly regularly there and initially ships with a lighter and cheaper build will be used to frequently fly and deliver high grade minerals and ores(of higher quality than those of Earth) from the belt into the much thinner atmosphere of Mars. There they can be processed and delivered to Earth in ready to use forms, which would probably be quite good for trade, as Earth will be able to supply goods that will not be available for production on Mars for a long time. The flybys will probably include the Moon, which is also cheaper to reach from Mars, again because of its thinner atmosphere. The Moon, like our red cousin, is rich in some highly useful materials and elements and an established Mars infrastructure will bring down the prices of exploitation of our satellite.
The sensation and idea of unlimited and unexploited vistas of resources and worlds out there will reinvigorate society and serve to promote a more civil behaviour between human beings. It is not that Earth is incapable of supporting its population but the idea and possibility of new homes will serve to alleviate social ailments on our home and help produce a more polite globalisation. Perhaps failure to colonise Mars will serve to betray the very spirit of life itself and the need of it's propagation. It is running against the natural curiosity of our kind.
After having some conversations around I found out that people are bringing up the issue of space radiation as an obstacle to space flight. Reaching Mars in shielded habs(habitats), that have already been developed by NASA, will not expose human beings to essentially more radiation than that of Earth. It is to be noted that our bodies do need some amount of natural radiation to perform healthily. Not higher doses than those we experience on Earth, mind you! Cosmic rays are the constant background space radiation, but what about solar flares? The habs can be arranged in such a way that the crew can take shelter in the centre of the hab, surrounded by all the supplies, equipment and thick walls of the rooms and outer shields. This will negate the incidence of the Sun naturally releasing jets of particles.  
After the first few tuna can habs have been landed and several scientific sites have been establishes, more tuna cans can be brought in and connected via inflatable corridors. Mostly scientific operations will be carried out and frequent but limited rover distances will be covered on a regular basis(limited driving distances). Propellant will be chemically produced in situ(on site) and drinkable water will be purified and reused. Hydrogen will be the only needed component to bring from Earth to make both of those possible and through water electrolysis Hydrogen can be recycled and used more efficiently.

As time passes more water can be extracted from the environment via the baking of soil, microwave extraction by moving platforms or the placement of large plastic domes to condense the trapped moisture from the ground, heating it with reflective mirrors. This will provide more resources for fuel production and will allow the extra energy to be invested in the extraction of materials from the environment such as iron, aluminium and silicon as they require heat for the chemical purification. Metals can be smelted via a solar foundry(lenses focusing sun rays) on the equator at first as it will be highly economical. Martian steel could be produced, which because of the gravity will be as light as aluminium on the ground and could possibly be exported or used to construct underground homes for the human population. Those will be build from brick, made with Martian clay and Martian water and the whole building will look like an underground mall - vast cellars lit with solar power. The low surface temperature will impregnate the clay walls with moisture, locking them in permafrost which will pressurise the building and provide radiation protection.
As power production increases a different type of propellant will be extracted - ethylene. It can be used to produce polymer plastic. From that, unpressurised domes for growing plants can be made, or the clay underground buildings can be reinforced additionally against depressurization. The gas can also be used for ripening plants. Carbon dioxide is readily available in the atmosphere and it will provide heating via greenhouse effect for the growing agriculture. Biomass from plants can be used to feed animals, fertilisers or for growing mushrooms, which are extremely good at transforming mass into proteins. They also don't need light and much warmth. After some time larger structures with exported Plexiglas from Earth can be build, using Martian plastic, steel and brick to create overground pressurised transparent living domes for the people - some hundreds of metres across.  
Geothermal wells will become number one source of power for a time being at least, as they are economical and provide a steady and reliable source of heat and electricity. In comparison on Earth we have already chosen the location of our cities, therefore negating some of the economising effects of geothermal power, that is otherwise readily available here. Future Mars infrastructures will be more efficient at using next generation technologies. This will not happen before the whole planet has been travelled, mapped and studied extensively. The gravity on Mars can assist with that as an interesting type of jet propelled rovers - performing rocket jumps and driving together will cover vast amounts of land. Different kinds of planes can acutely make use of the unique Martian environment, but those will be used to fly over hemispheres because of the thin atmosphere. The lower electron density of the higher layers of the atmosphere will allow telecommunications using more basic text messages, voice recordings and picture sending. But the same short AM waves can be used to study the ground for underwater aquifers or geothermal wells of interest. Old style navigation, akin to the Polynesian sea navigators could be used to brave the vast desserts of Mars efficiently. The sun and two moons, Phobos and Deimos will provide an adequate guide for the wayfarer of the arid plains.  
Deuterium or heavy Hydrogen is more abundant on Mars than on Earth and a future economy based on fusion power will ensure prises for the rare fuel will be higher than that of gold, kilogramme for kilogramme. An infrastructure for export/import will be vital to a growing economy and the two worlds will become locked in a trading triangle including the Moon. Earth vehicles will need to be heavily equipped for return to a denser atmosphere and burn up more fuel because of higher gravity so a large orbital trade station will be established. All of these technologies will serve an useful purpose in the far future, ensuring the development of the Solar human civilisation and will lay the foundation of the travelling out of the Solar System's boundaries.
A large satellite may be constructed in space, some one hundred twenty five kilometres across, no more heavy than the largest ships that sail our oceans at the moment. It will not move but rather be a statite - a focusing mirror that will reflect sun light on the south pole of Mars, releasing the sequestered carbon dioxide there. It will bring an increase of atmospheric pressure and extra greenhouse effect for the planet. In addition some gases can be released to further the effect of the warming climate. In due time the giant mirror can be focused at the north pole, releasing the water that is locked there in permafrost and giant blocks of ice. Mars will have it's first ocean in a long time. The initial water flow will react with the soil and release the locked oxygen. Brute force engineering, primitive cyanobacteria and denytrifying microorganisms will start to provide small amounts of Oxygen and Nitrogen as well. It will take millenia to introduce a breathable atmosphere but as technology advances and population increases the effects will become exponential.
The future social organisation of Mars will probably have more work available than hands present and will need every man possible. Workers will be treated well and paid highly and the future technocratic order will be on the look-out for innovation. It is quite possible that Martian technology will reach Earth and in turn revolutionise society back here. 

If confided to the borders of Earth humanity will possibly perish in a intellectual back-lash long before the limited lifespan of our planet expires.