Colonization of Mars: Wikis


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An artist's conception of the colonization of Mars, with a cutaway showing part of the interior (NASA Ames, 2005)

The colonization of Mars by humans is the focus of speculation and serious study, as the surface conditions and availability of water on Mars make it arguably the most hospitable planet in the solar system other than Earth. While the Moon has been proposed as the first location for human colonization, unlike Earth's moon Mars has an atmosphere — giving it the potential capacity to host human and other organic life.


Relative similarity to Earth

Space colonization

Outer solar system

While Earth is most like its inner neighbor Venus in bulk composition, Mars' similarities to Earth are arguably more compelling when considering colonization. These include:

  • Mars has a surface area that is 28.4% of Earth's, only slightly less than the amount of dry land on Earth (which is 29.2% of Earth's surface). Mars has half the radius of Earth and only one-tenth the mass. This means that it has a smaller volume (~15%) and lower average density than Earth.
  • Mars has an axial tilt of 25.19°, compared with Earth's 23.44°. As a result, Mars has seasons much like Earth, though they last nearly twice as long because the Martian year is about 1.88 Earth years. The Martian north pole currently points at Cygnus, not Ursa Minor.

Differences from Earth

  • The surface gravity on Mars is only a little more than one third that of Earth's. It is not known if this level is high enough to prevent the health problems associated with weightlessness.
  • There are no standing bodies of liquid water on the surface of Mars.
  • Because Mars is farther from the Sun, the amount of solar energy reaching the upper atmosphere (the solar constant) is less than half of what reaches the Earth's upper atmosphere or the Moon's surface. However, the solar energy that reaches the surface of Mars is not impeded by a thick atmosphere like on Earth.
  • Mars' orbit is more eccentric than Earth's, exacerbating temperature and solar constant variations.
  • The atmospheric pressure on Mars is ~6 mbar, and in its current condition, is well below the Armstrong Limit, 61.8 mbar for people to survive without pressure suits. Since terraforming cannot be expected as a near-term solution, habitable structures on Mars would need to be constructed with pressure vessels similar to spacecraft, capable of containing a pressure between a third and a whole bar.
  • The Martian atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. Because of this, even with the reduced atmospheric pressure, the partial pressure of CO2 at the surface of Mars is some 52 times higher than on Earth. It also has significant levels of carbon monoxide.


Conditions on the surface of Mars are much closer to habitability than the surface of any other known planet or moon, as seen by the extremely hot and cold temperatures on Mercury, the furnace-hot surface of Venus, or the cryogenic cold of the outer planets and their moons. Only the cloud tops of Venus are closer in terms of habitability to Earth than Mars is.[2] There are natural settings on Earth where humans have explored that match most conditions on Mars. The highest altitude reached by a manned balloon ascent, a record set in May 1961, was 34,668 meters (113,740 feet).[3] The pressure at that altitude is about the same as on the surface of Mars.[4] Extreme cold in the Arctic and Antarctic match all but the most extreme temperatures on Mars.

On March 21, 2007, in remarks at JPL's High-Tech Conference for Small Business, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said, "We also hope to discover if Mars can provide a second home for humans—an extension of our civilization—40 million miles from Earth."[5]



An artist's conception of a terraformed Mars (2009)

It may be possible to terraform Mars to allow a wide variety of living things, including humans, to survive unaided on Mars' surface.[6]


Mars has no global magnetic field comparable to Earth's geomagnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this permits a significant amount of ionizing radiation to reach the Martian surface. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft carried an instrument, the Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), to measure the dangers to humans. MARIE found that radiation levels in orbit above Mars are 2.5 times higher than at the International Space Station. Average doses were about 22 millirads per day (220 micrograys per day or 0.08 gray per year.)[7] A three year exposure to such levels would be close to the safety limits currently adopted by NASA. Levels at the Martian surface would be somewhat lower and might vary significantly at different locations depending on altitude and local magnetic fields.

Occasional solar proton events (SPEs) produce much higher doses. Some SPEs were observed by MARIE that were not seen by sensors near Earth due to the fact that SPEs are directional, making it difficult to warn astronauts on Mars early enough.

Much remains to be learned about space radiation. In 2003, NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center opened a facility, the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory, at Brookhaven National Laboratory that employs particle accelerators to simulate space radiation. The facility will study its effects on living organisms along with shielding techniques.[8] There is some evidence that this kind of low level, chronic radiation is not quite as dangerous as once thought; and that radiation hormesis occurs.[9] The consensus among those that have studied the issues is that radiation levels, with the exception of the SPEs, that would be experienced on the surface of Mars, and whilst journeying there, are certainly a concern, but are not thought to prevent a trip from being made with current technology.[10]


Interplanetary spaceflight

Mars (Viking 1, 1980)

Mars requires less energy per unit mass (delta V) to reach from Earth than any planet except Venus. Using a Hohmann transfer orbit, a trip to Mars requires approximately nine months in space. Modified transfer trajectories that cut the travel time down to seven or six months in space are possible with incrementally higher amounts of energy and fuel compared to a Hohmann transfer orbit, and are in standard use for robotic Mars missions. Shortening the travel time below about six months requires higher delta-v and an exponentially increasing amount of fuel, and is not feasible with chemical rockets, but could become feasible with advanced spacecraft propulsion technologies not in current use, such as VASIMR,[11] and nuclear rockets, the latter of which could potentially cut the trip time down to about two weeks.[12] Another possibility is constant-acceleration technologies such as solar sails or ion drives which permits passage times at close approaches on the order of several weeks. Both of these are currently feasible and could readily obtain a constant acceleration of 0.1g.[citation needed]

During the journey the astronauts are subject to radiation, which requires a means to protect them. Cosmic radiation and solar wind cause DNA damage, which increases the risk of cancer significantly. The effect of long term space travel in the interplanetary space is unknown, but scientists estimate up to 19% probability for male persons to die of cancer because of the radiation during the journey to Mars and back to Earth. Together with the base probability of 20% for a male person on Earth to die from cancer this gives a probability of 39%. For women the probability is even higher due to their larger glandular tissues. [13]

Landing on Mars

Mars has a gravity 0.38 times that of the Earth and the density of its atmosphere is 1% of that on Earth.[14] The relatively strong gravity and the presence of aerodynamic effects makes it difficult to land heavy, crewed spacecraft with thrusters only as was done with the Apollo moon landings, yet the atmosphere is too thin for aerodynamic effects to be of much help in braking and landing a large vehicle. Landing piloted missions on Mars will require braking and landing systems different from anything used to land crewed spacecraft on the Moon or robotic missions on Mars.[15]

Space elevators to land men and materials on Mars are possible with current materials.[16] A space elevator on Phobos has also been proposed.[17]


Communications with Earth are relatively straightforward during the half-sol when the Earth is above the Martian horizon. NASA and ESA included communications relay equipment in several of the Mars orbiters, so Mars already has communications satellites. While these will eventually wear out, additional orbiters with communication relay capability are likely to be launched before any colonization expeditions are mounted.

The one-way communication delay due to the speed of light ranges from about 3 minutes at closest approach (approximated by perihelion of Mars minus aphelion of Earth) to 22 minutes at the largest possible superior conjunction (approximated by aphelion of Mars plus aphelion of Earth). Telephone conversations or Internet Relay Chat between Earth and Mars would be highly impractical due to the long time lags involved. NASA has found that direct communication can be blocked for about two weeks every synodic period, around the time of superior conjunction when the Sun is directly between Mars and Earth.[18] A satellite at either of the Earth-Sun L4/L5 Lagrange points could serve as a relay during this period to solve the problem, or even a constellation of communications satellites, which would be a minor expense in the context of a full-blown Mars colonization program.

Robotic precursors

The path to a human colony could be prepared by robotic systems such as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. These systems could help locate resources, such as ground water or ice, that would help a colony grow and thrive. The lifetimes of these systems would be measured in years and even decades, and as recent developments in commercial spaceflight have shown, it may be that these systems will involve private as well as government ownership. These robotic systems also have a reduced cost compared with early crewed operations, and have less political risk.

Wired systems might lay the groundwork for early crewed landings and bases, by producing various consumables including fuel, oxidizers, water, and construction materials. Establishing power, communications, shelter, heating, and manufacturing basics can begin with robotic systems, if only as a prelude to crewed operations.

Early human missions

Early human missions to Mars, such as those being tentatively planned by NASA, FKA and ESA would not be direct precursors to colonization. They are intended solely as exploration missions, as the Apollo missions to the Moon were not planned to be sites of a permanent base.

Colonization requires the establishment of permanent bases that have potential for self-expansion. A famous proposal for building such bases is the Mars Direct plan, advocated by Robert Zubrin.[12] The Mars Society has established the Mars Analogue Research Station Programme at sites Devon Island in Canada and in Utah, USA, to experiment with different plans for human operations on Mars, based on Mars Direct. Modern Martian architecture concepts often include facilities to produce oxygen and propellant on the surface of the planet.


As with early colonies in the New World, economics would be a crucial aspect to a colony's success. The reduced gravity well of Mars and its position in the solar system may facilitate Mars-Earth trade and provide the rationalization for continued settlement of the planet.

Mars' reduced gravity together with its rotation rate makes it possible for the construction of a space elevator with today's materials, although the low orbit of Phobos could present engineering challenges. If constructed, the elevator could transport minerals and other natural resources extracted from the planet.

A major economic problem is the enormous up-front investment required to establish the colony and perhaps also terraform the planet.

Some early Mars colonies might specialize in developing local resources for Martian consumption, such as water and/or ice.

Another main inter-Martian trade good during early colonization could be manure.[19] Assuming that life doesn't exist on Mars, the soil is going to be very poor for growing plants, so manure and other fertilizers will be valued highly in any Martian civilization until the planet changes enough chemically to support growing vegetation on its own.

Solar power is a candidate for power for a Martian colony. Solar insolation (the amount of solar radiation that reaches Mars) is about 42% of that on Earth, since Mars is about 52% farther from the Sun and insolation falls off as the square of distance. But the thin atmosphere would allow almost all of that energy to reach the surface as compared to Earth, where the atmosphere absorbs roughly a quarter of the solar radiation.

Nuclear power is also a good candidate, since the fuel is very dense for cheap transportation from Earth. Nuclear power also produces heat, which would be extremely valuable to a Mars colony.

Heating requirements could be lowered if the colonists use domes to trap solar heat, especially for greenhouses.

Possible locations for colonies

Mars can be considered in broad regions for discussion of possible colony sites.

Polar regions

Mars' north and south poles once attracted great interest as colony sites because seasonally-varying polar ice caps have long been observed by telescope from Earth. Mars Odyssey found the largest concentration of water near the north pole, but also showed that water likely exists in lower latitudes as well, making the poles less compelling as a colony locale. Like Earth, Mars sees a midnight sun at the poles during local summer and polar night during local winter.

Equatorial regions

Mars Odyssey found what appear to be natural caves near the volcano Arsia Mons. It has been speculated that colonists could benefit from the shelter that these or similar structures could provide from radiation and micrometeroids. Geothermal energy is also suspected in the equatorial regions.[20]


Eagle Crater, as seen from Opportunity (2004)

The exploration of Mars' surface is still underway. The two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have encountered very different soil and rock characteristics. This suggests that the Martian landscape is quite varied and the ideal location for a colony would be better determined when more data becomes available. As on Earth, the further the distance from the equator, the greater the seasonal climate varies.

Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris, the "Grand Canyon" of Mars, is over 3,000 km long and averages 8 km deep. Atmospheric pressure at the bottom would be some 25% higher than the surface average, 0.9 kPa vs 0.7 kPa. The canyon runs roughly east-west, so shadows from its walls should not interfere too badly with solar power collection. River channels lead to the canyon, indicating it was once flooded.


Making Mars colonization a reality is advocated by several groups with different reasons and proposals. One of the oldest is the Mars Society. They promote a NASA program to accomplish human exploration of Mars and have set up Mars analog research stations in Canada and the United States. Another group is Marsdrive, which is dedicated to private initiatives for the exploration and settlement of Mars.


Besides the general criticism of human colonization of space (see space colonization), there are specific concerns about a colony on Mars:

  • Mars has a gravity 0.38 times that of the Earth and a density of the atmosphere of 1% that on Earth.[21] The stronger gravity than the Moon and the presence of aerodynamic effects makes it more difficult to land heavy, crewed spacecraft with thrusters only, yet the atmosphere is also too thin to get very much use out of aerodynamic effects for braking and landing. Landing piloted missions on Mars will require a braking and landing system different from anything used to land crewed spacecraft on the Moon or robotic missions on Mars.[22]
  • The question of whether life once existed or exists now on Mars has not been settled, raising concerns about possible contamination of the planet with Earth life. See Life on Mars.
  • Advocates of a return to the Moon say the Moon is a more logical first location for a first planetary colony, perhaps using it as practice for future manned missions to Mars. However, the moon has no atmosphere, no analogous geology and a much greater temperature range and rotational period. These differences make Mars more in common with Earth than the Moon. Antarctica or desert areas of Earth provide much better training grounds at vastly lesser cost. Also, the Moon has extreme poverty in several of the key elements required for life, most notably hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (50 - 100 ppm), as well as the high delta-v required for takeoff and landing.[23]
  • It is unknown whether Martian gravity can support human life in the long term (all experience is at either ~1g or zero gravity). Space medicine researchers have theorized on whether the health benefits of gravity rise slowly or quickly between weightlessness and full Earth gravity. One theory is that sleeping chambers built inside centrifuges would minimize the health problems. The Mars Gravity Biosatellite experiment was due to become the first experiment testing the effects of partial gravity, artificially generated at 0.38 g to match Mars gravity, on mammal life, specifically on mice, throughout the life cycle from conception to death.[24] However, in 2009 the Biosatellite project was cancelled due to lack of funds.
  • Mars' escape velocity is 5 km/s, which, though less than half that for Earth, is reasonably high compared to the Moon's 2.38 km/s or the negligible escape velocity of most asteroids.[25] This could make physical export trade from Mars to other planets and habitats less viable economically.
  • There is likely to be little economic return from the colonization of Mars whilst Lunar and Near Earth Asteroid industry is likely to be exporting to Earth.[26]
  • Mars has dust storms which can reduce solar power. The largest of these storms can cover much of the planet.

In fiction

A few instances in fiction provide detailed descriptions of Mars colonization. They include:

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Remarks as Prepared for Delivery By the Honorable Shana Dale, NASA Deputy Administrator" (PDF). NASA. 
  6. ^ Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars
  7. ^ MARIE reports and data
  8. ^
  9. ^ Zubrin, Robert (1996). The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. Touchstone. pp. 114–116. ISBN 0-684-83550-9. 
  10. ^ Zubrin, Robert (1996). The Case for Mars:The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. Touchstone. pp. 117–121. ISBN 0-684-83550-9. 
  11. ^ NASA Tech Briefs - Variable-Specific-Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket
  12. ^ a b Zubrin, Robert (1996). The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. Touchstone. ISBN 0-684-83550-9. 
  13. ^ NASA: Space radiation between Earth and Mars poses a hazard to astronauts.
  14. ^ Dr. David R. Williams (2004-09-01 (last updated)). "Mars Fact Sheet". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  15. ^ Nancy Atkinson (2007-07-17). "The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet". Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  16. ^ Space Elevator - Chapter 7: Destinations
  17. ^ Space Colonization Using Space-Elevators from Phobos Leonard M. Weinstein
  18. ^
  19. ^ Lovelock, James and Allaby, Michael, "The Greening of Mars" 1984
  20. ^
  21. ^ Dr. David R. Williams (2004-09-01 (last updated)). "Mars Fact Sheet". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  22. ^ Nancy Atkinson (2007-07-17). "The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet". Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  23. ^ Space Frontier Foundation - Moon vs Mars Debate
  24. ^ Mars Gravity Biosatellite
  25. ^ Welcome to the Planets
  26. ^ The Case For Space

Further reading

External links


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