Sunday, June 14, 2015

Colonization--Are We Dreaming the Impossible Dream?

As a Science Fiction Romance author, I often write about various entities on assorted ships galloping around the galaxy to asundry moons, planets, space stations and the occasional Death Star type construct and it's all done quite effortlessly. My stories sometimes encompass settings with dozens--even hundreds--of planets and moons that can support human life.

Being forward thinking by nature, I think we like to collectively believe this will all someday be within our reach. But do we really understand what a monumental task we're facing, or have decades of SF stories made it sound all too easy?

I'm going to take a closer look at the subject of colonizing another planet, and I'm going to use Mars as my example. Why Mars? It's the best option. It's the nearest reachable planet that's survivable. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter are definitely out as prospects. Some of the moons of Jupiter might quality, except the intense levels of radiation from the planet means you can scratch them off the list, at least for the time being. Titan is often named as a body in the solar system that looks very much like Earth, but let's face it, it's orbiting Saturn, a planet where the sun is just a small speck in the sky and it's so cold it has oceans of liquid methane. It may look like Earth, but it ain't Home Sweet Home. Mars is our best candidate.

Mars may be the easiest--but it's still not easy. Here are just a few ways that even mild-mannered Mars could kill you.

1) It could freeze you. Mars may be our neighbor, but it's still half an AU further out from the sun. The average (yes, average) temperature on Mars is -80 F. Again, that's the average. If you pick a nice warm spot to settle--say the equator--the daytime temperatures in the summer may be a balmy 70 F degrees, but at night it drops to -100 F. Away from the equator and you're facing even colder temps. If your environmental suit, eco-habitat or enclosed rover craft fails, you're a Pop-Sickle.

2) It could suffocate you. The atmosphere on Mars is 100 times less dense than Earth's and not breathable. Obviously we can't bring a breathable atmosphere to Mars, so we'll have to manufacture oxygen on the red planet, either via photosynthesis or chemical reaction. This will require either farming of oxygen-producing plants or dangerous chemical applications that will produce oxygen in an enclosed area. If anything goes wrong--and there are a lot of things that could--you don't breathe. But wait, you say. What about terraforming Mars so it has a breathable atmosphere? Well, let's look at that. Earth has been around for 4.6 BILLION years. There was no oxygen in the atmosphere until around 2.5 BILLION years ago, after plankton had been producing it for eons. The atmosphere we know as survivable first occurred around 500 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion when life began to flourish. If we need to wait for plankton, algae or bacteria to create a breathable atmosphere on the entire planet, I think we'd have a very long wait. Oh and by the way, several of the mass extinctions on Earth are related to sudden drops in oxygen levels. Even good ol' Earth hasn't always maintained a survivable climate. There's no telling how stable our "new" Mars atmosphere would be, even if we found a way to produce one within the lifespan of our species.

3) It could starve you. We also can't bring enough food to survive on Mars just as we can't bring enough oxygen. We'll have to create that, too. That may be tricky, since the soil on Mars has never grown anything organic--or at least not in the last several billion years. So we'd first have to create tillable soil, and then we'd have to plant, grow and cultivate enough food to meet the the colonists daily required caloric requirements, and we'd have to create Earth-like conditions to grow this Earth-based food. If anything happens to disrupt the harvest (such as the habitat is damaged and oxygen is lost or cold reaches the crops, or there is a loss of sufficient water to irrigate the plants), they die...and you starve.
So it's hopeless, right? Well, no. Don't forget, this is the human species we're talking about. The odds of sailing across an ocean to a land never seen before and colonizing it was once a pretty risky endeavor as well...but here we are. We got ourselves from Earth to the Moon in less than one decade, so it seems we can do just about anything we decide we really need to accomplish. But that doesn't mean it's going to be simple.

So taking all this into consideration, I'm really looking forward to The Martian, a movie set to debut in November about an astronaut left for dead on Mars. He faces the exact survival scenarios outlined above while being alone and completely cut off from all contact with Earth. Of course, he only has to survive a mere four years--with not enough food, oxygen or water to last even a fraction of that time--and somehow find a way to travel alone across 1800 kilometers of rocky Martian landscape to reach the landing site for the next mission, with no way to let NASA know they may have an extra passenger.

How can he possibly survive? Well, no matter the odds there's one thing we should never write out of the equation. Human ingenuity.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Here's a peek at The Martian trailer. Looks like some highly entertaining research for an SFR writer, if you ask me. Have a great week.


  1. Their actually is a project set to colonize Mars starting in 2025, the Mars One mission. It's very interesting what they are planning and millions signed up to be a part of it.

  2. All this is why the search for a 'twin Earth' among the exo-planets is so very important. There are lots of reasons why a Mars colony could/would fail. But I guess we have to start somewhere.

    And yes, that movie looks truly fascinating.

  3. Hi Steph. Yes, I've been following the Mars One project. They have a lot to accomplish in a decade, but at the rate we're discovering new technology and new science...I wouldn't write them off. :)

    Greta, yes, a twin Earth would probably be a better scenario except for a couple of issues. All possible candidates are way beyond our ability to reach with current propulsion systems and then if we do get there and do find it is an Earth-twin, there could be problems with micro-organisms for which we have no immunity. Growing up on Earth as a species has given us tolerance to most of the native bugs, but our immune systems might have no way to deal with alien viruses or bacteria. (Sort of the reverse scenario of War of the Worlds.) So we might end up living in environmental suits even with a "perfect" Earth-like planet, unless science can find a way to make us immune to alien bugs.

  4. Gosh there is a crazy amount of choice in sci-fi on the big screen already this summer! Looking forward to checking this out. I'd really like to read the book first if I get the chance.

  5. I still hold out a faint hope of seeing someone land on Mars for real, but somehow I doubt it. And a part of me is more and more convinced we should be spending more time and resources fixing planet Earth before we go messing around with another planet. We're not very good at looking after things. >_<


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