Public Domain; Credit: Nasa/JPL

Mars Proficiency: 10 Techs to Master

One of the greatest themes of Interstellar (2014) is the notion that to avoid the tragedy of the commons and make the big picture best decisions, is that we need to “think less as a human, and more as a species”.

For reasons supported by many, and well expressed in the film Interstellar (2014), the extinction of the human race is an inevitability if we stay on Earth. Many of these concerns are beyond timescales of our own lives, but as a civilization and a branch of life, certainly. That said, I don’t think this should be our main drive for colonization of planets, but rather, for it’s long-term economic viability and component of an interplanetary society.

These types of discussion used to be purely the realm of science fiction, but there’s definitely something to be said for planning, and the framework for these missions may only be years to decades away at most. As the only technological species on the planet, should something occur, it would either be of our own doing, or it would leave us as the only species with the means to do something about it, for the sake of much of Earth’s ecosystems.

Why Mars?

Many discussions have been made about some sort of base at a Lagrangian point, either between the Earth-Moon as a local or Earth-Sun as deep space station. I suspect it may be of use at some point if asteroid mining really takes off (2020s?), in which case, local processing, mining on site and processing at a Lagrangian point would be far cheaper energetically (not to mention safer) than hauling a massive rock to a near-Earth processing facility. It’s an interesting thought, but I believe most of this system would be automated. Space drones, mini orbiters and robots would likely do most of the dangerous zero-G mining work, though I suppose a few individuals might love the remoteness and isolation that a remote asteroid mining town could foster.

For a larger human settlement though (dozens, or hundreds, or more), a planetary body is a much more practical destination, and while the outer solar system is host to some other interesting destinations, many are close to a decade away at near-term technologies, rendering them on practical terms, “too far”. Thus, for the near future (by which I mean 2030s), human settlement will likely be confined to the inner solar system, of which only Mars is a solid candidate. But indeed it is a fine candidate, at least compared to current alternatives, and is a great stepping stone for more advanced skills we would need beyond Mars. It’s proximity to the asteroid belt may also make it more advantageous for asteroid mining, possibly a key future industry to Mars settlements.

While there has been substantial focus by public agencies on the “exploration” of Mars, the flag-planting that NASA has planned for the 2030s fall far short of establishing a permanent, self-sustaining population on the Red Planet. There are many reasons for the lack of ambition in our public agencies–being overly influenced by politics, lack of technical imagination and of course, being stymied by political gridlock, concerns of cost, and the need to justify returns on investment–but this leaves humanity without a plan for expanding beyond Earth in the 21st century.

The accelerating privatization of near-Earth orbit over this decade has shown that the economic model for space is poised for change, allowing the efficiency of private “New Space” entities to produce industry-shaking innovations to replace the old public-financed “Old Space” world. By deriving technical and economic models based on first principles, and despite not having the benefit of cost-plus contracting, these new upstarts now provide access to space as a service. These lessons suggest to me that a privately-led venture, or a multitude of ventures, would be more viable for establishing a permanent, self-sustaining colony on Mars than any existing public initiative.

Our long-term goal is to establish Mars as a colony where the general human population can participate, and this project aims to bring together thought leaders and potential stakeholders to develop a clear roadmap, technical integration, and requisite partnerships to make this vision a reality. By opening up Mars as a place that humans can call home, we can help ensure that humanity is on a roadmap to becoming an interplanetary species.

The organizational needs for establishing such a colony would be substantial, but within the realm of reason. Other interesting sociological questions arise that we can discuss today, including the governance structure of such a colony, the expected capacity, the length of individual stays, what skills would be necessary, what problems could be faced, etc… Indeed, these are the kinds of questions that I’d like to see raised as it’s been demonstrated repeatedly that the public is interested, and that this is the right time; but we need the compelling contributions of all people to push forward our civilizations next great work.

(On a side note, I’ve been following, a startup dedicated to building commercial enterprises from ideas. At least, it is as of now. There, I’ve posted on my thoughts on Mars, and hope to engage some interested folks to enable this great endeavor!)

Walls to climb

If it hasn’t been clear, I’m a bit of a fan of strategy games, and no it’s not just the Korean side of me. I also like to make game references. So, if this Mars Colony was a “Great Work” of humanity, what would be its prerequisite technologies? How much would it cost? I’m no uber-scientist, but I love to brainstorm–here are a few that come to mind:

1. Solar power and grid-level battery backup (DONE)

To survive effectively on Mars, any colony needs a reliable source of electricity to support it’s needs. Mars receives less sunlight than Earth affecting PV effectiveness somewhat, and occasional dust storms will likely affect solar availability as well, but assuming flux typical of what you’d expect on the surface of Mars, being optimistic and using current tech as a model ~5 square meters of feasibly could generate 1,000 W (ballpark figures–Mars receives about a third of Earth’s sunlight where we get a theoretical 1,300 W / sqm at equator, max solar efficiency that I’ve seen is ~44%). This must be stored in order to allow use through dark periods, through some type of battery.

2. Power Efficiency (DONE)

Assuming that early colonies don’t rely on nuclear power (unlikely, given the necessary weight of a reactor), solar with battery backup will likely be the main source of power. And unlike Earth, where you can at least still survive without electricity for a while, on Mars, losing power would mean pending death unless recovered. As a result, expect the first Martian colonies to ration power like blood. Thankfully, we don’t heat up our homes light incandescent bulbs anymore, and from LED lighting, to low-power mobile devices, we made huge strides in reducing our power usage, at least in America and Western Europe. In the US, power peaked around 2006 before the recession, and despite the recovery, and a meaningful increase in population since then, we’ve actually decreased power consumption since then. Remarkable what we can do when you have the will and the means.

3. Electric everything (READILY FEASIBLE)

Due to the obvious fact that the Martian atmosphere is not going to let you burn anything, internal combustion just won’t work. Thankfully, a few companies have been devoting a great deal of resources into developing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, so we can check this one off.

Nasa did the research! Blame them! :)

4. Radiation shielding (CHALLENGE)

Mars does not have an effective magnetic field or ozone layer to shield it from damaging charged particles and solar radiation. As a result, any long term habitat for humans will need to consider how to shield itself from radiation, and mitigate it’s effects on the surface. There are clever ways to do this, but the best shielding is to build underground. A colony build underground could be shielded from the solar effects–not to mention any concerns over the increased risk of micro-meteorites due to the thin atmosphere and proximity to the asteroid belt.

To build underground though… this may have to be the task of robots. Good thing we’re good at that already.

5. Advanced computer vision-enabled robotic systems allowing for autonomous excavation, mining, construction (ADVANCING)

We’re about partway through the academic cycle on this one. Regarding computer vision, its pretty obvious that it’s going to matter a lot for drones, and with drones becoming more autonomous, for non-lethal activities, it makes sense to have them manage themselves. In the mining industry, earth-moving scale mining operations commonly use robotic mining equipment, though still often managed remotely. To move this further to allow robotic operation on Mars beyond mining could yield many benefits, including construction of radiation safe habitats, maintenance to atmosphere facing sides of the habitat, resource gathering in the field, field repair of vehicles, regular ferry between Mars surface and orbit, and from Mars orbit to Earth orbit, etc…

6. 3d-printing, micro-manufacturing, digital goods (ADVANCING)

Given the difficulties in moving physical goods to and from Mars, the ability to manufacture new equipment on-site will be a crucial strategic asset on Mars. Nasa has recently equipped the ISS with a 3d printer and tested the ability to digitally send parts for printing in space. This, and further developments will help provide necessary proficiency in on-site manufacturing that will be essential on supply-limited Mars.

7. Extreme-Agriculture and food (ADVANCING)

Humans like to eat food. If it weren’t for this unfortunate problem, we’d be able to get by without this gigantic requirement. But, let’s take this in stride; any thriving Mars colony will likely have the freshest locally-grown organic goods imaginable. Such will be the norm when all the water you drink and the air you breathe is tightly managed and pollution-sensitive. I’ve mulled around whether creating a true biosphere makes sense on Mars, given the past failures, but realistically, that’s overkill. Hydroponics and recent innovations in vertical farming show that massive improvements have yet to be made in the art of growing food. Our innovations in water management for smart cities will in turn provide a foundation for efficiencies in space.

8. Latency-tolerant interplanetary internet, and mass planetside caching (PLANNING)

The propagation delays, even at lightspeed are in the realm of minutes between Earth and Mars; naturally, we would like to expand the notion of the internet from being geo-centric to a solar system wide entity, with minimal latency. Perhaps caching content across Earth and Mars internet nodes. Some leading minds are involving resources to this; given what we can do today already, I suspect this is almost a no brainer :).

9. Colony governance

Yet unclear is what the level of government we would establish in the initial colony. Due to the amount of shared spaces and resources, individual space would be severely compromised, as compared to the typical Western lifestyle. The small populations of the initial colonies suggest that it would rely extensively from outside economic support.

Still, as long as basic human needs are being met, I think many people will be able to adjust. Still, such long term habitation in a confined space will likely induce some stresses on the population. I would hope that folks are able to recognize the shared struggle that this venture is. Given the long term habitation

10. Survival sufficiency

Any need for supplies and personnel would take at least 7 months (when orbital alignment is most favorable) a life altering commitment by the person choosing to go. Despite reusable rockets, the current direction still looks like a 500 day round trip period when using the ideal window. Any other orbital transfer would take longer, or use more fuel. So this necessitates having a baseline level of expertise in the colony populace, and coverage of key colony health subjects.

In a way, the Mars colony, can be seen as the most remote human village ever created.

I’m sure other key barriers will be recognized that require addressing in the days ahead. Please suggest any to me, if there’s something missing that you feel should be on here.