Before reading this article please read articles in the space policy category including descriptions of the overall plan and goals and previous missions
If you are less interested in the technical aspects of the colonization you might jump to the bottom of this article on the Colony growth and population estimates.
One of the most exciting things about Mars is the readily available source of raw materials we know about. There is almost certainly lots of stuff we don’t know about but just looking at the North and South Pole and the surface of Mars we have tested we know the following materials are easily available:
The south pole (or North Pole if we decide to go that direction instead) contains a massive amount of CO2 and Water. It is estimated that both contain about 1.6 Million cubic Kilometers of water and nearly 800 cubic Kilometers of CO2. This represents enough water to cover the planet in 57 meters of water if melted.
There is also a large amount surprisingly of what is called fixed Nitrogen representing about 1100PPM in the soil. This Nitrogen is believed to be directly usable by plants and easily converted to Nitrogen for atmosphere.
This means key materials are either available directly or easily available with simple chemical reactions like:
- Liquid Water
- Methane for fuel
- Nitrogen for plants
- CO2 for plants
The combination of Nitrogen, CO2, H2O and some catalytic reusable elements allows us to make rocket fuel (Methane) which could also be used for power generation if we wanted and will also be used to facilitate chemical reactions to produce plastics or similar materials for construction.
Thus the south and north poles represent fantastic available resources for bootstrapping a colony.
The biggest problems for these poles is that the North Pole experiences massive winds approaching 400mph at times during the warming seasons and the South Pole sees massive eruptions as they undergo phase transitions during different seasons. This will represent significant risks and experience to figure out how to operate or remain safe in these environments when these violent activities are happening.
We may eventually decide to pipe the water and other resources to colonies from the poles, however, because of the cold atmosphere it would require heated pipes which might be quite expensive and hard to upkeep especially with the conditions outlined above. Therefore we might use large tankers to transport the supplies to the storage locations.
In order to bootstrap it is obviously necessary for the colony to get resources regularly and to be able to process those resources using indigenous resources and methods as much as possible. This is not something we know precisely how to do and thus it will require iteration and learning.
This is a big reason why I insist robotic operation is critical. We cannot have humans in any quantity until we get these processes locked down to at least V1 or V2 and know what we need to take with us in later missions.
The purpose of these initial missions is thus to test out the various processes and to find materials etc. It is assumed as we learn there will be V2 and maybe V3 of some equipment and processes that will evolve and we want to be sure by the time humans arrive that we can support them under any conditions.
It is possible that a very small group of Mars colonists could be transported early in these missions than I planned to help with dealing with exceptions and to repair or speed on-site learning.
Mission 7-13 goals
1. Extend each of the first 3 sites proving out real colony needs such as mining, farming, habitat building.
2. Producing quantities of key resources such as Water, CO2, Nitrogen for plants and Nitrogen gas, Methane, Oxygen and Hydrogen.
3. Provide backup supplies and repairs or balance the supplies as we decide.
4. Start to demonstrate basic life supporting functions can operate for long periods with no loss of life.
5. Learn from this phase what the problems are with the v1 version of the hardware we sent initially. Design V2 hardware based on problems discovered.
6. Pick the first site for human colonization.
The goals of these missions can be described as prove out the basic assumptions of colonization and reuse. Find where we fail and where it is problematic and fix and design Version 2 of pretty much everything.
Mission 7 (Earth Weight 150,000 lbs)
Mission #7 Location: Polar Location – Production Delivery
2000KW Ultra-Capacitor Battery (70,000 lbs)
2 Large Scale Solar Power Extensions (30,000 lbs) 500KW
1 Warehouse storage modules (15,000 lbs)
4 Specialized Farming Robots (1,000 lbs each)
Miscellaneous Supplies and Spare Parts packing material (33,000 lbs)
With this power upgrade the Mining and Habitat location will have the power needed to provide all the services for a colony that will be doing resource mining and processing. This doesn’t mean we are committed to this location for the main colony Habitats. The site should be the most desirable site we have found so far but we are still years from moving humans on to the planet so this could be a backup habitat site or research site or simply one of the sites we do mining at.
I combine mining and habitat building at this site because many of the things needed for one are needed for the other.
An alternative if none of the 3 Initial sites seems like a good site for habitat or mining is to break the functions apart and create a 4rth and possibly 5th site for mining and habitat building. This is not a huge problem because we intend to build out 10 sites eventually.
This mission is extremely exciting as I expect we will be in large scale production of critical materials during this phase. These materials will be accumulated in the flexible warehouse modules demonstration the ability to produce and store enough materials for the colony to use and have as backup.
Before we continue to the next mission let’s review an important consideration which we should be coming to a conclusion on.
Thinking about the location for the first Colony and the most likely first bootstrap process
Choosing a site
The most likely scenario is a mining site is the best place to locate the first colony. All the work we did prior to Mission 7 was to determine which location was the best for mining. We will decide where to put the first human colony based primarily on proximity to resources and ability to build safe habitats. If it turns out this is the best site then we could co-locate our primary mining site with the first colony.
The criteria we use for the first colony should consist of something like this list:
- Suitability of the site to Habitat building
- Proximity to farming
- Proximity to resource sites
- Centrality to all the sites we need to be close to
How many SKU’s do we need to resupply
Key resources for the colony will be water and food. I assume the colonists will occupy themselves with combinations of keeping the farming productive and expanding as well as leveraging the mining operations to produce indigenous production capability.
Learning and improving these 2 things are critical to eventual sustainability.
3D Printing may be critical since we can’t know everything we will need in advance
There will undoubtedly be an emphasis on technologies such as 3D printing because we won’t have the ability to have all the custom tool and manufacturing that exists on the Earth across billions of people.
The colony will have to continue to import special high specialization manufacturing tools and materials that cannot be manufactured initially. This would include many medical supplies. It will also include materials processing and electronic equipment which take highly specialized people and technology to build.
Whatever else needs to be 3D printable. 3D printing requires special materials. It is not clear if we can produce the materials for 3D printing indigenously until much later which means we may have to bring lots of materials with us as the ink.
The main initial thing we will be able to offload from resupply will be food, essentials of life like air and water. After that, we should be able to produce locally as much as possible the materials for our habitats. Walls, structural support, windows, shielding, etc..
After this, we should strive to produce power, robots, spare parts and raw materials for 3D printers, specialized production of fuel, possibly battery technology.
Since many medical supplies come from organic sources we need to have special farming for medicinally needed plants and highly specialized equipment.
We will need to import electron or other microscopes, MRI or PET scanners, DNA processing machines and all kinds of medicines and medical devices.
The goal will be to reduce the number of SKU’s the colony uses to minimize the complexity of too many limited run parts but this is where 3D printers will be handy. Undoubtedly we need on the order of 100,000 SKUs but I am guessing 90,000 of those SKUs can be fabricated on Mars using raw materials and some processing or 3D printers.
This leaves 10,000 SKUs we will need resupply until the colony is bootstrapped up to a much higher level.
When we think of how much space a colonist will need it can vary a lot. In NASA’s world in the past astronauts have had to live with space not much more than the physical size of their bodies such as the 3 days on the moon that a number of astonauts lived in the tiny LEM vehicle.
The space station has provided space for up to 7 astronauts for a period of a year or less. The space station is approximately 5,000 square feet or 500 square feet per person.
It is clear this is way too small for a person in a colony that they live in for 10 or 20 years or longer.
We need space for people for the following purposes:
- Living quarters
- Office space and offices for non-production type workers
- Labratory space for lots of experimental equipment
- Space for manufacturing and process work
- Space for repair and construction
- Space for Parks, common areas and meeting areas
- Dining Halls
- Food preperation and processing from the farms + storage
- Storage for essentials such as air and water
- Space for shops or common goods
- Medical rooms for people
- Medical rooms for equipment
- Medical rooms for labs
- SPE Space
- Room for Transportation, ingress and egress docks
- Exercise Facilities
- Public Restrooms
When you think of this you realize the total space needed that needs to support an Earthlike environment is much larger than the living quarters. For instance, storage and shopping space could be 10 times the living quarters space although much of that space may not need to be protected to “Earth levels.”
A good swag of the number would be 5 times the typical living space of 500 sq ft. We could compromise at 2500 sqft of space for each person including working quarters, hallways and entertainment facilities. Assuming a colony of 100 people this is 250,000 square feet or the equivalent of 100 medium size homes. We could live with a lot less initially, but eventually we need to build a lot of space to make Mars habitable.
Some economies can be envisioned. For instance, ideally, the living and sleeping quarters would be SPE safe (radiation protected) so we may not need a separate space for everyone to go during SPE events. Therefore, the living quarters should probably be in the most protected part.
It would thus be highly desirable to have the living quarters buried under the soil at least 15 feet. Other facilities could be either at soil level, possibly under 5 feet of soil or even overground if we can find suitable technology to provide cosmic ray protection.
Right now the choices are either high magnetic fields generated by magnets hopefully that could be constructed from indigenous materials or delivered to the planet and reused a lot. We may find materials particularly effective at repelling cosmic rays but it is likely these would be exotic materials that would be hard to manufacture on Mars so that we would use them sparingly or find a way to manufacture them reliably on Mars.
As I said in a previous article the colonists would be able to spend 8 hours a day at most in full exposure to outside radiation if they could spend the other 16 hours in highly protected Earth-like zone. (A day on Mars isn’t 24 hours so this is not precisely the way to look at it but essentially 1/3 of their time could be exposed to the outside environment.)
If we can produce high density metals we could possibly use them around most of the structures. Metals are more efficient at shielding and the Mars soil does have a plethora of metallic minerals.
Given the large amount of structure needed underground we will need a lot of digging bulldozers and soil movement machinery. Here is a list of common materials used in industrial processes on Earth and the energy required to produce them. Given our 500KW energy capability I list for each material how many hours would be required to produce 1000KG or one metric ton of the following materials assuming we had all the inputs.
Wood (from standing timber): 3-7MJ (830 to 1,950 watt-hours). (NA producing wood will be expensive)
Steel (from recycled steel): 6-15MJ (1,665 to 4,170 watt-hours). (4 hours of electricity)
Iron (from iron ore): 20-25MJ (5,550 to 6,950 watt-hours)
(12 hours for 1000kg)
Glass (from sand, etcetera): 18-35MJ (5,000 to 9,700 watt-hours) (12 hours)
Steel (from iron): 20-50MJ (5,550 to 13,900 watt-hours)(12 hours)
Copper (from sulfide ore): 60-125MJ (16,600 to 34,700 watt-hours) (36 hours)
Aluminum (from a typical mix of 80% virgin and 20% recycled aluminum): 219 MJ (60,800 watt-hours) (150 hours)
Silicon (from silica): 230-235MJ (63,900 to 65,300 watt-hours) (150 hours)
Nickel (from ore concentrate): 230-270MJ (63,900 to 75,000 watt-hours) (150 hours)
Aluminum (from bauxite): 227-342MJ (63,000 to 95,000 watt-hours)
Titanium (from ore concentrate): 900-940MJ (250,000 to 261,000 watt-hours)
Electronic grade silicon (CVD process): 7,590-7,755MJ (2,108,700 to 2,154,900 watt-hours).
Let’s Consider wood. Wood has many desirable characteristics mainly from a desire to reproduce an EarthLike experience. While making wood isstructures is cheap we can imagine this is pretty unrealistic for more than a small display. Using bamboo which grows fast would consume vast water and soil resources .
Some materials like electronic grade silicon requires unbelievable amounts of energy and requires a huge amount of specialized equouipment so we would ship that for quite awhile.
From the numbers above we can estimate energy needs for the colony to produce materials for various construction activities.
I am in the process of building an overall spreadsheet which puts all these numbers together under different scenarios to compute energy needs, the needs of each colony member and plan for the essential needs to be in place as the colony grows.
Looking far ahead to Colony Growth
I have estimated the following parameters for Colony growth. I realize this is not as fast growth as some have envisioned. Possibly I am being conservative.
Each mission after the 50th (2035) would bring approximately 15 people and eventually we would be adding 60 immigrants every 5 years to the colony. I have estimated the average age of immigrant adults to be 35 roughly. I expect that we could accept 2 children in the immigrant pool initially and grow to 9 children immigrants every 5 years.
Assuming we start immigration in 2035 the population would be 17. By 2040 it is 52 with 8 children. This assumes the original immigrants have children. By 2045 the population of the colony is 101.
I am assuming a high death rate of 10% in the first 15 years of the colony. I am guessing this will happen because of natural deaths but also from accidents. This is a dangerous world. Possibly we will be better and fewer will die but we must assume that people will die. I estimate that by 2045 25 people out of the 126 who are born or immigrated leaving a population of 101.
By 2050 we are up to 173 people. 73 are female and 77 are male adults. There will be 12 female children under 18 and 11 male children. By 2050 there will be 7 native born residents and very high percentage of the female adults are are of child bearing age. Raising children on Mars also needs habitats and safety precautions as well as significant diversion of time from activities of maintaining the physical infrastructure and production and science of the colony.
By 2060 the population of the colony is 315 and a total of 61 people have died. The death rate has now declined to a more sustainable 3%. 3 of these deaths will be children. 1 of the deaths would have been a native born child. The colony is now producing roughly 5 native children per year. Our immigration rate reached 12/year for the last 15 years.
By 2070 the population of the colony is 450. We are seeing exponential growth. I anticipate we will have 7 colony sites in operation with an average population of 64 people per site. The colony will have enormous needs.
By 2070 we will need 112 acres of farmland in greenhouses. We will have 900 greenhouse modules. This will consume 65kg of CO2, 4950 kg of nitrogen. We will need 4.5 million kg of soil for all this farming. The colony will consume 7.2Megawatts of energy. We will need 60,000 KWH storage of energy.
The average person will consume 130 lbs of food a year. They consume 48 lbs of oxygen / month. I have estimated all these basic needs per colony member and calculated the needs and the energy to produce it as well as other basic life support functions and construction as well as entertainment and research needs.
By 2080 the colony reaches 574 people, 2090 694 people and by 2100 813 people. These people will be spread over 10 colony sites possibly unevenly. Of these 813 people 373 are adult females, 380 adult males, 38 female children and 42 Male children. There will be 134 native born of the 813 people. A total of 361 people would have died in the colonies 65 years of existence.
A colony of less than 1,000 may seem like a lot less than Elon Musk’s plan or anyone else’s but my plan has the benefit of being practical in the sense that it I have taken into account the needs for habitat and production of most materials indigenously.
The colony won’t be 100% self supporting in the sense that no country or place on earth is self-supporting. I would assume by 2100 native industry would have some ability to export materials or to find some useful way to gain “rent” or income to cover much of the imports to the colony to support the needed essential materials that cannot be made on Mars by now.
In other words I think by 2100 it is possible that Mars will be self-sufficient for all intents and purposes. The ability to grow the colony after 2100 is potentially exponential. I could see with the number of people available on Mars, the ability to use local resources and multiply the robots and such that Mars could grow to be 1,000,000 people by 2200. This would be an extreme estimate but I believe if the colony wanted they could expand at much faster rate after 2100.
Certainly before then we could have experimented with ways to engineer much higher atmospheric pressure on Mars. Possibly with large scale production of methane, melting the poles and biologic techniques if we can raise the atmospheric pressure on Mars by a factor of 20 we can make Mars livable for humans with modest wear. We might also by then engineer a large magnetic field as envisioned by some which could create a safe Mars which is also amenable to much more rapid expansion both from immigration and native population.
A Mars colony is an incredible thing to imagine. I realize it must seem truly impossible for many people but the purpose of this blog in my mind is to make rational this dream and realize a realistic way this could be accomplished.
Sometimes our dreams are exceeded by reality. I doubt anybody imagined that the Earth could support 7 billion people nor that our technology would allow us to live lives filled with food, entertainment, goods and for a large number of these people to be living in such good condition. Many people believed the Earth couldn’t sustain the people it does today.
I personally didn’t dream of cell phones having the power and capability they do today. Advancements in some areas outpace what even common sense might anticipate. We have found that a lot of the faster development is of electronics because it is easier to manufacture vast amounts of these devices and distribute them than for instance changing our physical infrastructure of roads and cars.
Because there are 300 million cars in the US alone even if you came up with a new transportation system it takes at least 20-40 years to produce enough of the new transportation to replace the existing. The idea of changing the multi-trillion dollar infrastructure of our roads is inconceivable in any short time so the advancement of some things just cannot happen as fast.
Moving to Mars will take time. Building the infrastructure to support lots of human beings and “bootstrapping” which is enabling the colony to become self-sufficient in a reasonable time is going to take time. We have to give time for us to learn and to the travel times to Mars are significant meaning the missions take time to plan and get there so we can’t send things when things go wrong. It has to already be there.
The danger of the environment and everything else means we have to be ultra-conservative. My basic assumption is that by the times humans arrive enough supplies and redundancies are available that no “Mars: The movie” like scenarios could possibly occur.
The amazing thing is I think our technology has come to the point that this is a practical possibility. With the advancement in our communications and electronics, AI and robots we are able to build self-driving robots on Mars. Robots that can build and do construction and mining. It will take years to design, perfect and do a V2 of these things but with today’s AI and technology it is possible.
Elon Musk has done one of the most critical things to enable this vision. He has reduced the cost of lifting a lb of mass into space. This is the most critical factor because everything has to do with the mass. The more it costs to send a lb into space the more any dream such as this costs. It is a direct multiplier of the cost, thus reducing this cost cuts the cost of producing a Mars colony nearly in half.
This should have been the goal of NASA. Reducing the price to put mass in space makes all space things possible. However, now that we are well on the way to having a more economical lift capability we need to make great advances in robotics and design of the devices and facilities we need on Mars to build the colony. These are not trivial and require lots of time to design, test and train. They will have to be largely autonomous from the beginning because no plan allows humans to go there safely until a lot has already been done to prepare.
I really think this is a practical vision for America. I believe the plan I have outlined is doable in a budget of $20 billion/year in 2020 dollars. NASA would have to redirect funds. I believe an important thing to consider as soon as possible is selling the ISS space station to SpaceX. It would be more of a pay SpaceX to run it. See my article on that in Space Policy.
If NASA could fund SpaceX to operate the ISS and build it up to support Mars missions over the next 10 years we could get this whole plan in high gear. NASA needs to redirect significant funding to new Mars vehicles and Mars robots. One of the first things we do is deploy a GPS satellite array over Mars to enable the robots and things we land on Mars to start to create the Google Mars. We need high resolution 360 degree virtual reality 3D cameras everywhere on Mars with a communication system able to handle the data traffic. These are first basic things to start the project.