Colonising Mars: more a fantasy than a future

Antibiotic resistance, nuclear threat, climate change. These are just a few of the monumental challenges we face today on Earth and the list could go on! It is therefore pivotal that we address the deceptively romantic dream that more money should be poured into colonising Mars. Through this post, we hope to highlight the serious flaws in arguments proposing we divert significant funds in an attempt to inhabit our red neighbour, and open your eyes to superior exploratory projects that should command our attention.

There is little doubt that curiosity and exploration are key traits that have helped propel humankind’s development as a species. Consequently, it is essential that we stress two key points before proceeding any further:

IMG_3474 21.We are not opposed to space exploration as a whole and certainly do believe that discoveries beyond Earth may ultimately benefit humanity.

2.Mars should be included within space exploration, but importantly, investing more money into its colonisation is both unnecessary and detrimental to such projects.

The Cost

Ballpark figures estimating the cost of the first manned mission to Mars vary dramatically with NASA’s initial estimates suggesting a single mission could cost around 100bn. However, realistically, sending humans to Mars would be more likely in the region of $230bn. Sounds like a lot right? Well, that is just the beginning. To establish any form of a permanent colony on Mars would require a huge number of missions transporting key supplies for repairs and building any basic infrastructure. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, and one of the biggest proponents of travel to Mars only sets out plans to travel to Mars but has avoided concerning himself with any actual process of colonisation. Putting humans on Mars would not only be astronomically expensive but also lacks a strong scientific grounding. Brent Sherwood, a researcher at the NASA jet propulsion laboratory has highlighted such flaws as he states “humans are not going to be doing anything close to the kind of science that we’re already doing robotically or that we can do on ISS in low-Earth orbit right now”. Current rovers and robotics technology are only set to continue to improve in capability and will promote less politically motivated exploration, improved scientific research and for a fraction of the cost.

Problems we would face with life on Mars

The fourth issue of contamination:

One of the biggest concerns with colonisation is the risk of contaminating Mars with Earth microbes. This could lead to us contaminating any research done on Mars, making it impossible for astronomers to determine whether they have encountered alien life or if it’s just something they brought with them. We don’t understand a lot about the Martial environment, especially on a microbial scale, there could be life systems on Mars that we have yet detected and introducing foreign bacteria could forever disrupt the natural Martial environment. Colonisation also runs the risk of bringing harmful pathogens to Mars which may survive on its surface and cause much harm later.

Is the colonisation of Mars ethical?

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While investigating arguments in opposition to colonising mars, it became clear that there is a significant ethical component to this debate. Does any country really have the right to colonise Mars? The ‘right’ to colonise Mars compares to debates over the colonisation of Antarctica. For example, seven countries claim territorial right to parts of Antarctica (with some territories overlapping), and in order to prevent conflict and maintain the landscape of Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 declared that no country should claim sovereignty over Antarctica. If similarly, Mars was subject to multiple territorial claims, and if colonisation was attempted by more than one specific country, the political conflict would also be likely, unless a similar treaty was enforced. Furthermore, on the politics of colonisation, it is argued that the US is attempting to colonise Mars for imperialistic reasons; as by colonising Mars, the USA would reinforce themselves as a world power. This leads to the discussion of whether it is ethical or not to treat the planet Mars as another pawn in the play of power.

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There are many additional ethical concerns in connection with the colonisation of Mars; for example, there is the possible disregard for Earth which may result from the colonisation of another planet. To elaborate, the prominent pro-colonisation figure Elon Musk argues that colonisation of Mars would be Earth’s ‘insurance’. However, this line of thinking may lead to decreased efforts to save the Earth from its own problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and pollution. Mars colonisation research programs run by companies such as Mars One and SpaceX require extensive financial backing and teams of incredibly intelligent people to be maintained. Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently has an evaluation of around $21 billion, while employing over 5000 workers. But, in a time when our own planet is facing such aforementioned, catastrophic issues, are these programs really how some of the world’s greatest minds should be utilised? Furthermore, is it ethical to pour such huge sums of private investment into space and Mars colonisation research? Using the same investments, we could potentially investigate colonising currently uninhabitable places on Earth such as Antarctica, or invest in environmental and social solutions to current global problems. Even Earth’s currently ‘uninhabitable’ locations such as Antarctica are still much more habitable than Mars (or any other planet found to date), therefore, why should we invest in living on a comparably uninhabitable planet when we already live on the most suitable planet in our solar system? Conclusively, I believe we should be investing in Earth’s future rather than in a possibly unattainable future on Mars.

A solution closer to home?

Proponents of a Martian colony have often suggested that having one would prevent us from a species level annihilation. This idea, while perhaps valid at some point in the future, ignores a far cheaper and more practical alternative that we should invest in now; bunkers on earth.

While lacking some of the romanticism of a colony on a new world, a bunker on earth would be easy to build and cheap to maintain. It would also be incomparably easier to colonize the earth from a million-strong city buried under rock than using expensive rockets from Mars.

A relatively unknown cosmic event that poses a significant threat to human existence is a gamma-ray burst occurring in our galaxy. This is when a beam of particles is fired out from the formation of a black hole. If it were to strike the solar system, the chances are it would strip the earth of its ozone layer and be deadly to anyone on the surface. People forget however that such an event would be wide enough to cover the entire solar system. Living on Mars would be no defense.

The insurance argument is often cited as the fundamental reason for a Martian colony, yet this is usually nothing more than an excuse. None of those in favour of a Mars colony have pushed for an earth base despite this being a cheaper and more effective option, that can be enacted soon.

Additionally, the other significant cosmic risk, asteroids could probably be easily redirected to miss the earth, if we had sufficient warning.

Some proponents may still suggest that an off-world colony would provide one additional layer of protection against such threats, just in case. Yet Mars is still an extremely inefficient option with significant ethical and physical issues as previously explored.

Alternatives to colonising Mars

Currently, the only place humans call home is Earth, therefore one of the main arguments for Mars colonization argues that off-world colonies are essential to ensure human survival for not just the next few thousands of years, but millions in the event of a planetary disaster on Earth. However, colonizing Mars could take around 50 years due to transportation alone and many Near Earth Objects (NEOs) do exist which are much closer to Earth and are just as capable of hosting human populations.

And if there were a planetary disaster on Earth, having an off-world colonization close by, would be far beneficial as it opens the possibility of providing aid. One alternative would be colonising the moon. A round trip to the moon takes around a week, this means that a colonization consisting of enough people to ensure genetic diversity could be achieved in approximately 6 months.The moon contains caves and caverns which can be sealed for paraterraforming. This would involve constructing an inhabitable enclosure on the moon which is pressurized with a breathable atmosphere, whereby production of oxygen can be provided by plants.

Another alternative, should people need to be evacuated, which is even closer to Earth would be free-space colonies. These can be constructed using material from the moon or from near-Earth asteroids and can also be placed at sites in between the Earth and the moon which are gravitationally advantageous so that the colony’s distance to both the Earth and the moon would remain constant.

Rather than sending humans to Mars to conduct experiments, there is another alternative which is already being used in medicine called telepresence. This involves using technology with is developing rapidly within the games industry to build semi-autonomous robots capable of during various tasks with almost no risk of contamination. Over time, we would eventually have a sizeable colony of telerobots which can make materials for export via human command.

Technological advances can still be achieved

It is often argued that through Mars colonisation, the technological advances that result will benefit other areas of society as a by-product. For example, the Apollo missions promoted advances in medical screening tests. However, to argue that a certain project should be pursued for the prospect of potential advances in other fields is highly illogical and there is no reason to suggest that superior breakthroughs wouldn’t have been achieved had funds been directly allocated to these areas of research.

 

 

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