Life on Mars: How the First Human Colonizers Will Survive on the Red Planet

posted: 03/08/17
by: Rachel Riederer

Humans have plenty of practice imagining colonizing Mars. A space shuttle's worth of books and movies have tackled this staple of science fiction. And today, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are working to turn Mars colonization into science fact. Elon Musk, CEO of the private space-flight company SpaceX, has said he believes his company will get the first Mars colonizers to the red planet as early as 2025. Whenever the first humans do finally arrive on Mars and set up camp, what will life be like? Nobody knows for sure of course, but some facts about our neighboring planet can help us forecast.

Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, says the best way to think about what we'll need to live on Mars is to start from what we need to live on Earth. "Here's what you need to live on Earth: food, water, shelter, and clothing. To survive on Mars, we need all of the above--plus oxygen," he says. The Martian atmosphere is thin--much thinner than Earth's, and it's made almost entirely of carbon dioxide. NASA engineers have created a machine that could turn CO2 into oxygen. MOXIE, a test model of an oxygen-generating machine, will accompany the next Mars rover on its launch in 2020. MOXIE is designed to pull in CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, compress it, break the oxygen atoms out of the CO2 molecules, and vent the oxygen back out. The device, not much bigger than a shoebox, could be the thing that lets future human explorers breathe on Mars.

But oxygen alone won't be enough to colonize this dry, icy planet 250 million miles from the one we call home. Water will also be key. The surface of Mars is a vast desert--there's no flowing water and no precipitation. But there is plenty of water on Mars, in the form of ice, and even water vapor in the atmosphere. A machine modeled on a simple dehumidifier could pull water vapor from the air, condense it, and provide usable liquid water. But Petranek has bigger ideas than just harvesting water from the atmosphere. He suggests setting up a giant solar fan orbiting Mars, aimed at one of its poles. The solar fan would act like a mirror, aiming the sun's rays at the Martian polar ice and causing it to melt. That would pave the way for growing crops, and for terraforming--the process of making the Martian environment mimic Earth's, as Petranek puts it, "re-engineering an entire planet."

Many say that we could warm up Mars the same way we have warmed up Earth, by releasing greenhouse gases. There are huge chunks of dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide, on Mars. Warming that dry ice would turn it into a gas, which would thicken up the atmosphere, providing warmer temperatures and more protection from cosmic radiation.

Terraforming would take lots of time, so the first colonizers of Mars would need something else to protect themselves from radiation and provide the amount of atmospheric pressure closer to Earth's. Engineers at MIT have designed a stretchy, skintight space suit for Mars exploration that is lined with "tiny, muscle-like coils" that apply pressure to the body that's missing from the atmosphere.

Even with the space suit, Mars colonizers will need protection from cosmic radiation and frigid temperatures--in other words, shelter. And these will likely be underground, in caves or excavated underground structures. A German architectural firm has even released plans for a network on underground living spaces--in this imagining, a crew of robots would arrive on Mars first, digging out the structures. When the humans arrive, their underground abodes would be ready and waiting.

Only time will tell how the first humans on Mars will actually live--a time that may be here sooner than we think.

Explore Discover Life! We're probing questions about Mars, from how humans might live there to where alien life might be hiding to survive the extremes. Plus, find out how we're preparing for the journey via extended stays on the ISS.

This experience is brought to you by the sci-fi thriller LIFE, in theaters March 24th.


About the blog:
Welcome to the inSCIder, where you can connect with the people who bring Science Channel to life. Find out what's in the works here at SCIENCE, share your feedback with the team and see what's getting our attention online and in the news.
More on
More Mars!