We continue to learn that Mars is rich with resources that could be vital to supporting astronauts on the Red Planet for any extended period of time. Instead of launching resources such as water and materials to build a habitat to Mars, it could potentially be much more cost effective to send automated robots to harvest resources from the Martian surface and atmosphere in preparation for the arrival of humans.
This colonization strategy is the subject of an April 2016 NASA scientific and technical information (STI) paper titled “Frontier In-Situ Resource Utilization for Enabling Sustained Human Presence on Mars,” which argues that the information we have gleaned from rovers and orbiters suggests that there is an abundance of useful resources already on Mars. What’s more, we are on the cusp of developing the technology that would be required to extract resources on Mars with robotic systems so they would be immediately available to arriving astronauts.
From the paper:
In recent years, measurements by rovers and satellites at Mars have indicated massive amounts of water in the form of ice beneath and within the regolith. At times, during the Martian year, liquid water is observed on the surface of Mars. If the planet were flat and the ice melted, there would be an ocean many meters deep on the entire planet. These huge deposits of water can be extracted in several ways and combined with the large amounts of carbon residing in the 95% CO2 atmosphere to produce life support fluids, fuels, oxidizers, and plastics for equipment, including rovers and spare parts.
The tentative plan all starts with water. By sending in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) equipment to regions of Mars with subsurface water ice deposits, we could extract the water that is key to producing other materials. Carbon extracted from the atmosphere could then be used to make a wide range of things, from plastics to rocket propellant to habitat-heating fuel.
Mineral resources are in abundance as well, including iron, titanium, nickel, aluminum, sulfur, chlorine and calcium. “Clay-like minerals are also ubiquitous in the Martian surface soils, making the manufacturing of ceramics for pottery and similar purposes a straightforward enterprise,” reads the STI paper. “The most common material measured by the Viking landers on Mars was silicon dioxide (SiO2)… the basic constituent of glass, which thus can readily be produced on Mars using sand-melting techniques similar to those that have been used on Earth for thousands of years.” SiO2 could also be used to make “many important glass products, including fiberglass, an excellent material for constructing various types of structures.”
To protect Martian settlers from cosmic radiation and intense cold, the most logical thing to do is build habitats underground, ultimately filling the caverns with inflatable habitat modules. Digging out habitats would also be an efficient way to expose subsurface water ice and other resources needed for ISRU.
Food could also be produced on Mars in a “protected atmospheric environment using sunlight,” or possibly using an artificial light source. “Earth independence requires that the astronauts grow their own food or that the food be grown for them robotically. Such robotic agriculture exists now. Possible food sources which could be produced on planet include mushrooms, insects, cyanobacteria (e.g. spirulina) and duckweed, along with many others.” The STI paper also mentions the possibility of developing a “rice paddy aquaculture” or “taking a plethora of insect species to Mars.”
If this all sounds familiar that is because, yes, this is pretty much exactly how it all goes down in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.
To actually realize a Martian outpost anything like what is outlined in the STI paper (and/or Red Mars), we would rely on advances in robotics technology and automated systems. Basically, we would need to send robots to start building our Martian settlement for us before we arrive, and continue to maintain the habitat, food-production systems, and other equipment. “The crew is there to explore, and to colonize, not maintain and repair. Any time spent on ‘living there’ and ‘housekeeping’ should be minimized to an oversight role of robotic automated tasks,” reads the STI paper.
We are starting to scratch the surface of developing robotic systems that could break ground on our new Martian home. A prototype instrument called Moxie will be included on the Mars 2020 rover for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. NASA is also considering a plan to launch an orbiter to Mars in 2022 that would search for ice deposits near the surface of the Red Planet, helping scientists pick the ideal location for a Martian outpost.
The point is, the resources we need are already there waiting for us. We just need to figure out how to use them.
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