The image above shows what may turn out to be a proposed semi-permanent base on Mars, but the notion that Mars could be colonized by humans is not new, and a plethora of plans on just how to do this include plans to transform the atmosphere of Mars to resemble that of Earth, to building huge underground cities, to building orbiting habitats, and many more besides, already exist.
However, a team of researchers from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne has now come up with a new plan that proposes the building of a 12.5-meter diameter central core that is surrounded by three “capsules” to act both as airlocks to the outside, and as storage / laboratory / workspaces. Also according to this latest plan, the entire structure would be covered by a layer of ice that is at least 5 meters thick over a massive polyethylene fibre dome to protect the crew from solar radiation and environmental threats, such as low atmospheric pressure and dust storms- among others. In addition, the structure will be erected close to one of the poles, where water (albeit frozen) is known to exist in relatively large quantities.
Moreover, the areas around the poles are also known to contain substances like iron, aluminum, sulfur, and carbon dioxide, which according to the research team, could be used to manufacture bricks, glass, and various forms of plastic that could be used in the construction of a more permanent base. According to the plan, this could be accomplished by using some of Mars’ methanol and hydrogen as a source of fuel.
So, what is the problem?
While the actual building of the proposed structure does not present significant engineering challenges on Earth, doing this on Mars is a different matter entirely, because none of the proposed resources will be available to a human crew straight away. As a practical matter, the crew would have to be housed in the lander until they can construct, and move into the proposed structure that requires an estimated 110 metric tons of equipment to construct.
To get around this, the plan proposes sending a team of robots ahead to construct the base, with human colonists following only after the base is deemed safe, and capable of supporting human life. While this seems like the sensible thing to do, this approach requires a lot of money that is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon.
For instance, the lifting capability to launch payloads of more than 100 tons does not exist, and even if it did, the challenges that come with lowering such massive payloads to the surface safely through Mars’ tenuous atmosphere are daunting, if not insurmountable, to say the least.
Rather interestingly, the plan does not extend to financial considerations. However, based on the historical costs of unmanned missions to Mars, the capital requirements of this plan would probably amount to many trillions of US dollars, which begs this question in light of the vast amount of money that was largely wasted (and continues to be wasted) on building and maintaining the International Space Station-
Why send humans to Mars, at all?
Given the fact that this latest plan to colonize Mars foresees a human presence on Mars of only nine months, it seems ridiculous to spend so much money when there is no real, clearly defined scientific imperative to send humans to Mars.
If the main object of such an endeavor is to collect soil samples to look for extant (or past) evidence of life, or to determine if liquid, flowing water did indeed carve out some of the geological features we see on Mars, the fact is that these things can be accomplished by vastly more cost effective unmanned missions. In fact, an unmanned mission to collect Martial soil samples and to return these to Earth is already in an advanced planning stage, which makes sending a manned mission to Mars superfluous, if not ill advised.
When we view any plan to send manned missions to Mars objectively, we must admit that while the exercise represents some interesting engineering challenges, we gain almost nothing by overcoming these challenges, because Mars has nothing we need to survive on Earth. Moreover, and more to the point, if we do actually do discover extant life on Mars, do we really want to run the risk of contaminating the planet by our presence, which could possibly exterminate the ancient life forms we tried so hard to find?