Living on Mars: here are the problems we will have to face

Living on Mars: here are the problems we will have to face

Living on Mars

Mars is the next stop for humanity in space, but before we really think about living there, there are some problems we need to solve. And it is not certain that we will succeed

The first human pilgrimage to Mars is expected towards the end of the 1930s (illustration: Getty Images) Among the great successes of the Martian missions and the long-term projects of public and private space agencies, Mars at this time seems closer than ever. Even the projects for the construction of lunar bases (such as the Russo-Chinese one or that of the Artemis program) bring the idea of ​​a possible interplanetary future for the human species and, consequently, the Red Planet itself closer.

In recent days, for example, there has been a lot of talk about Nüwa, the futuristic Martian city conceived by the architectural design studio Abiboo together with the group of Sonet researchers for a competition of the Mars Society, the body that aims to promote the future of humanity on Mars. To hypothesize what the first human settlement on Mars could be like, Abiboo and Sonet are looking for science fiction solutions - in the strict sense of the term, that is, keeping the imagination harnessed with science to create future hypotheses. Nüwa would be a city on the Tempe Mensa, with vertical development in the rock, in tunnels protected from radiation and meteorites. It would be built entirely with local resources and would depend on the Earth only at an early stage. After that, taking advantage of what the planet has to offer, it could become completely self-sufficient and sustainable. It is a set of hypotheses to solve the main problems in the construction of a Martian outpost: radiation, the extraction of resources, the production of food and water, the creation of an artificial environment that simulates the earth's environmental conditions.

A representation of the futuristic city by Abiboo studio and Sonet. Image: Abiboo Studio

Colonies on Mars: a radiation problem

Mars is small, too small to have retained the internal heat needed to produce a planetary magnetic field. Furthermore, precisely because it is small, its weak gravity is unable to hold back a dense atmosphere, which on the surface is just a few hundredths of the earth's atmosphere. The combination of these factors, the absence of a magnetic field and the thinness of the atmosphere, mean that anyone on the surface of the red planet is subject to the continuous bombardment of cosmic rays, those charged and energetic particles that come from the Sun or from the interstellar space.

Let's not talk about little radiation: in a 2014 study conducted with Curiosity instrumentation it was determined that in the best case, with a six-month trip and a stay on the Red Planet of little more in a year, the total radiation dose an astronaut would receive is 1.01 sieverts, more than twenty times the annual legal allowance for those working in the nuclear industry. An excess of radiation dose means an increase in the incidence of various pathologies and an increased probability of developing cancer cells, so protection from radiation is an essential step if we want to hypothesize not only a stay, but also a simple one-way trip. and back from Mars.

The Radiation Assessment Detector is the Curiosity instrument dedicated to the study of the radiation environment. Photo: Nasa In addition to hypothesizing an underground Martian life, to reduce the entry of radiation we can choose materials more suitable for shielding. There are various materials that could be used for this purpose, such as polyethylene and some materials based on boron and nitrogen, but you could also use water, which in any case the astronauts must have, distributing it in a strategic way to shield at least in part the radiation: a solution of this type however requires the presence of a continuous supply source for the blue gold.

Water and food on Mars

Generally we think to Mars as a desert planet, somewhat similar to terrestrial hyperarid deserts such as the Sahara or the Atacama. Mars is actually much more arid, much more inhospitable: there is very little water vapor in the atmosphere and liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars. There is a good reserve of ice in the polar caps and below the surface where the ice is mixed with the ground in a sort of permafrost. Furthermore, ice can also be found in some particularly cold regions which, although not located at the poles, maintain a low temperature because, for example, they are always in the shade. In one way or another, therefore, water, which is also used for the production of fuel, can be obtained on Mars. Even taking into account recycling systems such as those of the International Space Station, a Martian base must necessarily comply with the constraint of being in a place where water is readily available.

Korolev is a crater in the north polar region Mars rich in water ice. Image: Esa / Mars Express For food, the question is a bit more complex. Food supplies similar to what astronauts eat on the ISS could be brought from Earth, but self-sufficient production would still be necessary: ​​excluding animal farms, which require too many resources including water, energy and feed, some way to cultivate must be invented. vegetables. Among the crops best suited to the Martian soil are asparagus and spinach (not potatoes as in The Martian) and then tomatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, garlic and carrots. Direct cultivation on the ground is complicated by radiation, lower gravity and Martian insolation, something that could be solved at least in part with pressurized greenhouses, which however would require a lot of energy to operate. A more practical alternative if the bases were underground could be hydroponic or, better still, aeroponic cultures, i.e. in which water and nutrients are supplied to plants via mist.

In The Martian, cultivated plants are potatoes, but they would not be the most suitable cultivation for the Martian soil. Photogram: The Martian

A terrestrial environment on Mars

Leaving aside hypotheses that, at least in the short term, cross the dividing line between science and fantasy concerning the terraforming of Mars, within a possible Martian base it will be it is necessary to reconstruct an environment as similar as possible to the terrestrial one. The average temperature on Mars is 63 degrees below zero, lower than the Antarctic average, and the temperature range is very strong between night and day: if we ever build a base on Mars, the temperature must necessarily be kept under strict control. artificial.

The cultivation of plants, in itself, can favor the production of oxygen at the expense of carbon dioxide, counterbalancing the waste of human respiration. But the atmosphere of Mars is composed of 96 percent carbon dioxide and oxygen is present in a very small part. For this reason, for example, an instrument has been inserted on the Perseverance rover, the Mars Oxygen Experiment, which aims to extract oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide, working with electrochemistry to separate the carbon dioxide molecules into carbon monoxide and oxygen. A miniaturized instrument that should then be replicated on a large scale inside the Martian base.

The Mars Oxygen Experiment which is now on Perseverance. Photo: Nasa Among the countless problems that still remain to be named there is for example that of gravity, which on Mars is a third of that of Earth and we do not know what effects this could have on the human body during a prolonged stay. Or there is that of violent sandstorms, which obscure the sky of the entire planet for weeks or months and which, once again, would force us to live underground. There are dangers to the psyche of people forced to prolonged periods in a completely artificial environment. But basically, to face all this between dangers, constraints and difficulties, there is a problem of motivation: as for Antarctica or the ocean floor, there are excellent reasons to think about ways to build scientific bases on Mars, but for what reason should we want to build real cities on an inhospitable planet like Mars?

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