How we could colonize Mars if we wanted to

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you think—well, okay, just slightly less far-fetched

by Trevor Melanson

Let’s say we want to colonize Mars. Or better yet, let’s say we need to colonize Mars. After all, world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking—a rather smart fella, if ever there was one—has said humanity will face a choice between space colonization and extinction. Speaking to Canadian Press in November, Hawking said that because our genetic code carries in it selfish instincts, which made sense for survival thousands of years ago, it willl be difficult “to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.” In short, we’ve outpaced evolution and we’ve got all our eggs in one basket: Earth.

But why Mars? For one, it’s close by, comparatively speaking. Mars’s surface area may only be a third that of Earth’s, but keep in mind two-thirds of our planet is covered by water. Mars also has an atmosphere, albeit a thin one. Indeed, the red planet is generally considered the most Earth-like in our solar system. Even the days are only 40 minutes longer than ours.

But is it really doable?

The colonization of Mars should be viewed as an ongoing process. Despite its similarities to Earth, humans wouldn’t last long on its surface. With only trace amounts of oxygen in its atmosphere, you’d be lucky to live a couple minutes, if the cold doesn’t kill you first (the average temperature on Mars is -63°C). Still, that’s not nearly as bad as other planets. Venus, thanks to a runaway greenhouse effect, is a toasty 462°C. Nonetheless, full-body spacesuits would be required for early Martian pioneers.

In a sense, the colonization of Mars has already begun. Since the ‘60s, we’ve sent dozens of robots, including a handful of rovers, which could be used to locate resources and the environments most suitable for colonization. And while early manned missions would likely be purely exploratory, stations for long-term stays could eventually be built.

Protected colonies may lead the way—think giant space bubbles—but the endgame will likely be terraforming. That is, changing the planet’s environment to become extremely Earth-like, to the point of being livable. It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least. But planetary scientist Christopher McKay and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin have studied and written extensively about the potential for turning Mars’s environment into a habitable one, and they’re optimistic. They point out that Mars used to have a warm, wet climate and a thick atmosphere, and they believe this could be recreated “using 21st century technology.”

Step one would be to heat up the atmosphere. We can’t move Mars to a hotter orbit, but there is another way to warm a planet: triggering a greenhouse effect that would trap more of the sun’s energy. There are a few ways to do this, but one idea includes building giant space mirrors that would reflect heat onto the planet’s south pole, home to a heck of a lot of frozen CO2. If that CO2 were turned back into gas, the atmosphere would thicken and the climate warm.

It could get to a point, argue McKay and Zubrin, where pressure suits would no longer be needed—only oxygen masks. “With outside atmospheric pressures raised, it will be possible to create large dwelling areas by means of very large inflatable structures,” they write in a journal article titled “Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars.” Under these warmer conditions, plants, which produce oxygen, could be grown, though it could take thousands of years before animals could dwell on the surface unaided. Speeding up the oxygenation process still requires a big leap in technology.

But even if that part takes a while, imagine this: a Mars with unfrozen water, turned into rivers, lakes and maybe even small seas; a Mars with a tolerable climate and an adequately thick atmosphere; a Mars with grass and plants. This vision of the red planet may not be so out of reach—at least technologically.

There are, of course, other hurdles. Like money. The space mirrors McKay and Zubrin imagine would have a radius of 100 kilometres, and can’t be cheap. With money, it becomes a matter of how badly do we want it—or need it. The former is more difficult to answer, but for the latter, assuming Stephen Hawking is right about our species, the correct response may be pretty badly, pretty soon.


How we could colonize Mars if we wanted to

  1. You might need a giant mining ship like on star trek that melts iron ladden asteroids then bores a hole to the center of mars then pours it in inorder to give mars a magnetic field. then some more mass would be nice. some gold ladden asteroids. and lastly a decent moon.

    •  That’s not feasible it’s also extremely unrealistic. The reason why Earth has a molten core is because we have a far larger mass and planet.

  2. There is a huge issue with terraforming Mars, because of the fact that it DOESN’T have a magnetic field, solar storms will just brush the atmosphere with ease. So in a bit of time the atmosphere will just… dissipate. This will take time but it happens. To alleviate that you need to constantly terraform the planet. That’s why the only way humanity can survive is if we can find ways to travel light years in short enough amount of times.  

    • a large icy comet  impact on mars would probably aid in  resusitating its atmosphere to a more  liveable environment. Could happen in our lifetime or in the next few decades. It would be an awsome event.

    • Yes, and another problem with a lack of a magnetosphere is that the solar wind would also quickly disassociate liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen would dissipate into space.

      Other negatives would be:

      - Intense surface radiation (no Ozone layer, and again no magnetosphere).

      - Weak gravity, the surface gravity of Mars is only about 38% of Earth’s. And even though Mercury is slightly smaller, it has greater mass, making Mars the lightweight of all the rocky planets.
      And 38% is too little mass and gravity to hold a thicker atmosphere indefinitely, compound that with the magnetosphere problem, and you’d be topping off your oceans and atmosphere on a continual basis.
      In addition native born Martians would collapse when visiting Earth with it’s strong gravity.

      - Extremely salty and toxic soil, chock full of oxidants like perchlorate would kill off even lichens. Silicosis would be a constant issue, as the soil planet wide has the consistency of pulverized glass shards.

      - Hardly any phosphorus or potassium and a minuscule 3% nitrogen (vs earths 78.09%) means nothing for plants to eat.

  3. Mars doesn’t have enough of a magnetosphere to sustain an atmosphere, let alone life. It would be much easier to colonize Venus, as well as economically prosperous. It has tons of oxygen available in the form of CO2, Solar power is twice as strong as earth, it doesn’t have wildly varying terrain and weather

  4. Nice to see the comments, yet vry thing is possible…

  5. I agree that the colonization of space should be a long-term goal for mankind. However, if our goal is to maintain a hedge against disease, asteroids, etc. wouldn’t it be sufficient (and easier) to maintain an orbital space station, equipped to repopulate earth in the event of a major disaster?  

  6. Cognitive errors Macleans attributes to Stephen Hawking: (a) False Dichotomy: humanity facing a choice between space colonization and extinction. We could put a population through a Klein bottle, off the books, in the woods, let the money system correct itself both on the books and in the woods. I have given much thought to the ones among us who drive the markets; we want to be paid for our work, too. In Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis he reverses the direction of time, a questionable illusion; with what could the people pay the bankers? I have started considering some manufacturing options. See, approximations are all incorrect solutions. This has a genetic solution, expressed in the formats visible inside thoughts, yes, including private thoughts which are visible similar to seeing infrared. The bankers accept high quality information markets. HSBC shows pure desperation for information, a dying bank. I think we might have options open now. Only by presuming we are without real, tested options then behaving in silly ways based on unexamined assumptions would we lose this.(b) How testable is this assertion? “our genetic code carries in it selfish instincts”I have always questioned that notion. The ones who rise up show sensible philanthropy among their habitual practices, investing ourselves properly and side-stepping calls to explain each detail at initiate levels missing prerequisites to comprehension. (c) Predictions of human behaviour tend to contain slippery slopes in unassessed relations. Claiming out of the blue, as the article presents, alleged difficulty of disaster avoidance in the next time-span and subsequently claiming we could possibly have outpaced evolution, leads us to ask for physical observations in support of those claims and for a definition of the correct pace of evolution based on what authoritative claim. Canadian cognitive errors printed voluntarily by Macleans: (a) Like money. Rather than having emotions toward a commodity, alternative valid options include publicly acknowledging the noise about transforming Mars is from me and issued to Keynesian Economists with the restrictions in the assignment, first to colonize Mars without slaves and without depletion of our biosphere, and second to colonize Mars without presuming discontinuities in space. Anyone can try eating coins of low purchase power due to suffering from inflation. (b) With money, it becomes a matter of how badly do we want it—or need it. Both false, except with the prerequisite condition of having stopped being human. 

  7. I think we should colonize the sun…

    • yessss.. and then we could go to the beach everyday!! lyke soooo perfect!! 

  8. One planet at a time please. Let’s destroy this one completely first.

    • Hurr Durr, man is bad, derp.

      Even if you had a million super-villians with piranha guided nuclear bombs, you couldn’t wreck earth enough to bring it to where Mars is today.

      • oh contrare

        • Earth has extremophile bacteria living miles and miles deep in solid rock, and consuming the by-products of radioactive breakdown to stay alive. For food they utilize natural Uranium decay which cracks water molecules apart, recombining into peroxide.  This combines with pyrite to release ions, which the cells’ specialized metabolism can derive energy from.

          Mars is so toxic and radiation blasted, even these extremophiles, that live off of the equivalent of nuclear waste and bleach, could not survive.

  9. I like the concept of space exploration as much as the next guy, but it seems to me we’d be a lot better off colonizing the difficult-to-inhabit areas of our own planet first.  If we can do that, then maybe we think about colonizing even more difficult areas that are millions of miles away.

    So:  the Arctic/Antarctic and the deep ocean.  Right there we increase our livable surface area by a factor of 4, without worrying about oxygen availability or space travel.

  10. Mars has virtually no magnetic field and no spinning core of molten metal to create one, ergo human life will never have a chance on the surface without extensive shielding. Without a magnetic field, whatever atmosphere is created will be blown away by the solar winds. This article is so simplistic it should have been written in crayon.

  11. None of this addresses the fundamental flaw of Mars habitation.  
    “Earths twin” has no magnetosphere to protect it from solar winds or radiation. There’s a reason Mars has such a thin atmosphere, the majority of it’s been stripped away. 

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