As a new era of human space exploration dawns, the concept of humans living and working on the surface of Mars is no longer the stuff of science fiction. But, if settlement of the Red Planet is to become a reality, the technology to make long stays on the Martian surface will need to be developed.
With this in mind, the Mars Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of the fourth planet from the sun, has announced an initiative to create the Mars Technology Institute (MTI), a non-profit that will focus on the development of these technologies.
"SpaceX and other entrepreneurial launch companies are already moving rapidly to develop the transportation systems that can get us to the planet Mars," Mars Society President and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin said in a statement.
Zubrin said that the necessary materials to support human settlement are already on Mars and can potentially be mined in situ on the Red Planet, but to do this, humanity will need the tech to turn these materials into materials like cement, metals, glass, fabrics and plastics. Additionally, if the right technologies exist, harvested Martian materials can also be transformed into fuel, oxygen and even food for astronauts.
Putting biotech first
The Mars Society suggested in a press release that, in broad terms, there are three critical needs that a Mars colony will face: the severe constraints of labor, agricultural land and sources of energy.
Overcoming labor shortages could hinge on the development of robots and automated technologies as well as artificial intelligence needed to operate such systems. The lack of fossil fuels to burn on Mars and a shortage of liquid water to drive hydropower, as well as limited opportunities for solar and wind power, means that Mars settlements will have to rely on fission nuclear power plants or, if the technology proves viable on Earth, fusion power.
To tackle the lack of land on the Red Planet for agriculture, scientists could focus on biotech, including genetic engineering and microbial food production, as well as advanced agricultural systems like aquaponics and synthetic biology.
Though the MTI advisory board has already recruited a group of 12 experts in the fields of biotechnology, artificial intelligence and advanced nuclear energy technology, the Mars Society suggested that, once established for its initial efforts, the MTI should first focus its efforts on biotech. This is because these projects could be launched with less considerable financial backing than something like advanced nuclear research requires.
That isn't to suggest that developing biotech for Mars would be in any way easy, however, especially as current research in the field doesn't have to deal with the limitations delivered by the Martian landscape.
"Iowa cornfields are among the most productive farms on Earth, producing 12 metric tons of corn per hectare per year," Zubrin explained. "That's enough for a hectare to supply 30 people with a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of corn per day, or feed 20 people, assuming some land is devoted to fruits, vegetables and meat. That's extremely impressive, yet at that rate, a 100,000-person Mars town would require 5,000 hectares (around 20 square miles) of farmland — and that's under the optimistic assumption that such productivity could be achieved at Mars' half-Iowa solar illumination levels."
Zubrin added that scientists could try to augment production driven by sunlight by supplying artificial light at 200 watts per square meter, which is about 20% of sunlight received in Iowa at noon) but this would require 10 gigawatts, or 10 billion watts, of electricity — equivalent to the energy that could be delivered by 25 million solar panels.
"This results from the inefficiency of photosynthesis, which, while about 4% at the cellular level, is only about 0.2% efficient in converting the solar energy impacting a cornfield into biologically useful energy in the form of corn," Zubrin said. "This is not a major problem on Earth, where vast amounts of agricultural land are readily available. But it's a show-stopper for Mars.
"We need to solve this using biotechnology. By so doing, we will not only make it possible for humanity to become multiplanetary, we will decisively refute the canard that space advocates do not care about the basic needs of people on Earth."
How and where would the Mars Institute operate?
The Mars Society said that the proposed MTI would be nonprofit and would seek funding via tax-deductible donations. Additional support could be provided to the MTI via a wholly owned corporation called the Mars Technology Lab (MTL), which could receive donations from investors.
The MTL would also license technologies developed by the MTI and occasionally spin these platforms off into new separate companies. The dividends from these companies would then be channeled back to the MTI, the Mars Society proposed.
This means that the MTI would have six avenues of revenue, which the Mars Society lists as donations, investments, licensing income from intellectual properties, dividends from spinoff companies and research and development contracts with government and private corporations.
"Mars cities themselves will be inventors' colonies devoted to pursuing advances in these areas and will use the resulting technologies both to survive and prosper on the Red Planet and to obtain the income necessary to pay for imports by licensing such inventions on the home planet," Zubrin argued. "So why not start such a Mars Technology Institute on Earth now?"
He pointed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an example of how the MTI could eventually make money for investors by patenting and licensing the inventions of its scientists. Zubrin believes that such an institute hasn't already been created because investing in such a concern doesn't present a business case in the same way that investing in an existing Earth-based project does.
"The initial funders will have to be motivated by a long-term vision rather than short-term gain. It is hope, rather than greed, that will get us to Mars," Zubrin added.
Should the MTI blast off, the institute will conduct its research from a central campus, the location of which has not yet been selected, though sites in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado are being considered. Additionally, some projects could be outsourced to other companies and academic institutes.
The MTI could also provide funds for volunteers who propose research projects that are credible and that they are willing to conduct without a salary. This model is currently employed by the Mars Society and is exemplified by its analog research stations and rover competitions. These volunteer projects could have significant educational value for student volunteers when overseen by teachers in school and university lab facilities, the Mars Society added.
"The MTI could become not only the engine of invention but also the engine of finance to enable the human exploration and settlement of Mars," Zubrin concluded. "To quote Frederick Douglass, 'Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.' On to Mars!"