The Greatest Obstacles to Establishing a Successful Colony on Mars

Sun, 25 Jul 2021

The increasing privatization of space travel has brought renewed interest in the potential for crewed spaceflights to the moon and Mars, with private ventures such as SpaceX and Amazon's Blue Origin setting their sights on some of the most ambitious spacefaring missions humanity has yet attempted. Many leaders in the field of aeronautics have expressed a desire to not merely land on the surface of Mars, but to establish a permanent human presence on the Martian surface.

Though the exploration and colonization of foreign worlds remains for now just a tantalizing fantasy, many scientists and engineers in both the private and public sectors are hard at work trying to determine how to bring the spacefaring aspirations of humankind into reality. But establishing a permanent human presence on a barren, freezing world 34 million miles from Earth is no simple task. Among the myriad hurdles that the task of interplanetary colonization presents, there are a few that are especially vexing for astronauts. The following is a list of the biggest impediments to realizing humanity's dream of reaching other worlds.

Getting There

The task of establishing a permanent base on the red planet begins with actually landing on its surface. Even when Mars is at its nearest to us, it is still more than 100 times farther away from us than our moon. That means that getting to Mars will require far more powerful rockets than humans have ever launched into space. And covering this astronomical distance is made even more difficult by the added burden of all the additional equipment that will be required to not only make the trip with humans on board, but to establish a long-term base of operations on the Martian surface.

A wide range of equipment would be required for colonization, including facilities to produce food, water, energy, and breathable oxygen. All of this added weight requires boosters with far greater lift than anything NASA has constructed to date. Since no space agency has made a serious attempt at a crewed spaceflight to Mars, there are no precise estimates for how much power would be required to get us there.

SpaceX is currently in development of a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying over 150 tons of useful payload into space. To put that into perspective, the total mass of the Command Service Module, which was the spacecraft used during Apollo 11, the first crewed mission to the lunar surface, was 28,801 kg, or just under 32 tons.

If successful, this rocket, which SpaceX has dubbed Starship, will be the most powerful spacecraft constructed to date. Whether this level of power will be sufficient to achieve a crewed mission to Mars is yet to be seen, but there appears to be confidence on the part of SpaceX, as their current projections are to use Starship as the basis for their first projected crewed Mars flight in the year 2026.

NASA is also in development of a launch vehicle capable of lifting a payload of more than 100 tons into orbit. The project is being conducted in collaboration with Boeing and involves the construction of a launch vehicle known as the Space Launch System which is intended, among other purposes, to enable human crewed missions to Mars. This rocket will contain boosters capable of lifting over 130 tons. The first crewed mission is projected for 2023.

Finding Water

Water is the key ingredient to all life that we have yet discovered, so securing a reliable source of it is essential to establishing a lasting presence on another planet. Large-scale water purification systems will be essential in order to successfully maintain a Mars colony. However, for a resource as essential as water, it would also be highly advantageous to locate reservoirs of water locked beneath the Mars surface in order to sustain the colony in instances where water filtration systems break down, or the amount of clean drinkable water is insufficient to sustain the colony.

Though all evidence suggests that the surface of the red planet has been bone dry and intensely cold for the last several billion years, some evidence suggests that the moisture that existed on the surface of Mars in past ages may have seeped down through the ground and formed deep aquifers within the crust, and that those aquifers may still exist.

Researchers analyzing data obtained from the Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover, which launched in 2003 and touched down on the Martian surface the following year, discovered evidence of groundwater activity in the Meridiani Planum region. This is an area of Mars near the equator known for its rare formations of crystalline hematite. On Earth, this iron oxide compound has been known to form in hot springs and other standing pools of water. For this reason, many scientists have speculated that the Meridiani Planum environment could be host to ancient stores of liquid water just beneath the surface.

Pictures taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, which launched in 1996, also present compelling evidence for the presence of ground water in the upper levels of the Martian crust. The satellite took pictures of a series of large gullies on the Martian surface. Over the course of its mission, the research vessel catalogued several new formations emerging from these gullies, indicating the presence of ground water aquifers very near the surface of the Martian crust. An extensive analysis of the Global Surveyor's data by Dr. Thomas M. Donahue in 2001 at John Hopkins University concluded that the Surveyor's images strongly suggest "recent seepage of groundwater" from these large gullies. Moreover, the presence of high concentrations of atmospheric hydrogen suggests a series of chemical reactions "involving efficient exchange of water between atmosphere and crust now and in times past."

More recent observations from the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which was launched in 2013, and continues to collect atmospheric data from Mars' orbit, found high concentrations of molecular hydrogen in Mars' upper atmosphere, varying by season. This would indicate that there continues to be vast reservoirs of water trapped in the crust of Mars continuously escaping into the atmosphere, where it is then converted into hydrogen.

If indeed there are large quantities of water trapped within the Martian crust, it could serve as the foundation for a sustainable, long-term colonizing project. Water found on Mars would prove invaluable, not simply for drinking and agricultural purposes, but also as a fuel source for hydrogen gas powered equipment. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is a natural fit for space exploration, as it is far more efficient and longer lasting than its aging, environmentally wasteful alkaline counterparts.