Few planets have fascinated humanity as much as Mars. You could spend a lifetime enumerating pieces of science fiction about us making Mars our new home and not even scratch the surface.
Well, the folks from SpaceX, developers of aerospace transportation and starship prototypes (like the Super Heavy), believe it’s time to take the idea from fiction to fact. And they have a more-or-less clear idea of how to go about doing it.
First Human Colony on Mars
One can hardly mention the colonization of the Red Planet and not mention Elon Musk. The visionary entrepreneur and (currently) the fourth richest person in the world has made the mission to Mars a top priority for SpaceX. His vision for how we’ll tread our first steps on the fourth rock from the Sun involves us shacking up in glass domes.
These domes would be self-contained ecosystems that provide everything people need for sustenance, from air to food. The planet’s crew and cargo would find themselves shielded against Mars’ biting cold that often reaches -220 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, they can do the work needed to make the planet more suitable for human life.
Homes of glass would only be a transitory state of affairs on Mars, though. Musk proposes that the best long-term solution would be to simply make the planet more like our beloved Earth.
In a word: terraforming
Keeping it Habitable
Terraforming, in simple terms, involves molding a planet’s atmosphere and climate to match those of Earth. Of course, we’re talking about a strictly hypothetical field, seeing that we haven’t managed to terraform any celestial body thus far.
All the same, scientists and similar eggheads have discussed in detail the best ways to terraform Mars. They’re all pretty imaginative, and they range from the wonderfully delicate to the pragmatically destructive.
For example, one of the earliest suggestions for terraforming was posited by Carl Sagan way back in the sixties. The gist of it is to introduce algae to the atmosphere of a planet (Venus, in this case). Once there, the algae would convert nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water into various organic compounds, showering the planet with life-giving substances.
A similarly fantastical, though not as elegant, solution proposes that we surround a planet with massive mirrors. These mirrors would reflect sun rays and facilitate a greenhouse effect, gradually heating up the planet. That is one of the ways of terraforming that Elon Musk has pointed out as a good option for Mars.
Another terraforming preposition that Musk has championed is fairly straightforward: nuke the planet. More specifically, he suggests that nuking Mars’ polar caps would rapidly melt them, causing a planet-wide increase in temperature.
Though only conjecture, terraforming could very well be the way we make other planets fit for Earth’s flora and fauna. But how good of a candidate for terraforming is our rust-red neighbor? And is the technology needed to change the planet’s surface within our grasp right now?
Can It Be the Next Earth?
It doesn’t take a science degree to notice that Mars is a far cry from warm, cozy Earth. There is virtually no oxygen in the atmosphere to speak of, and the temperatures there put any Arctic chill to shame.
And that’s just the start of it. There’s also the fact that there isn’t any stably liquid water on the surface. Pair that with the incredibly low atmospheric pressure and lack of a magnetic field, and the true scope of the project becomes painfully clear.
By every metric, Mars is very much a fixer-upper, as Musk puts it. A lot of work will have to be put in to make it reasonably habitable. In fact, it’s safe to say that we won’t see the terraforming process through within our lifetimes. The technology to make it possible simply isn’t there yet. Some have even posited that it couldn’t be done at all, stating that there’s simply too much CO2 in the atmosphere.
So we likely won’t see a verdant Mars any time soon. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t happen at all. There could be a technological breakthrough that makes it much more feasible to terraform the planet down the road.
And crewed missions will still take place — NASA plans to send people there in the 2030s, in fact. We won’t make an Earth out of it yet, but we nevertheless have some plans in store for it.
As it turns out, the challenges to getting all the way to Mars start way before leaving Earth’s orbit. SpaceX has had its share of political hurdles that keep the company pinned to the earth, so to speak.
For instance, back in 2018, the enterprise failed to get a development contract from the U.S. Air Force. Seeing that Musk had had his eyes on getting the Falcon 9 rocket certified by the military for years, that was a tough pill to swallow.
Another hubbub came about when Musk smoked marijuana on the Joe Rogan Podcast that same year. Upon hearing about that, NASA administrator James Bridenstine called for a thorough safety review of SpaceX.
For now, an Earth-like Mars will have to remain in the confines of sci-fi books and your desktop background. That said, there will most likely be a Mars colony in the near future, which is awfully exciting.