21 January 2020

Mars and Antarctica

One of the loopier ideas that regularly makes the rounds is colonizing Mars.  For one thing, a few individuals with more money and notoriety than sense are proponents and are able to keep drawing attention to the concept.  The most fundamental objection, of course, is that no one has ever been able to think of a convincing reason for sending humans to Mars.  Collection of scientific data can be (and is being) done far more cheaply and safely by machines.  No resource available on Mars would be worth the staggering cost of transporting it back to Earth.  As for the claim that we need a human population somewhere else to guarantee species survival in case something happens to Earth, I addressed that nonsense here.

To understand why colonizing Mars is never going to happen, look at Antarctica.  It's the only continent humans have never colonized in the sense of establishing a permanent self-sustaining population (though there are a few small bases there).  Why not?  Obviously, because the environment is too inhospitable.

But compare Antarctica with Mars.  Yes, Antarctica is cold, but Mars normally gets even colder at night.  Antarctica is somewhat remote, but Mars never gets closer than forty million miles away.  The cost of travel to Antarctica is not prohibitive.  NASA estimates that a manned expedition to Mars -- sending a few people for a brief stay, comparable to the Apollo Moon missions -- would cost $450 billion (yes, with a B).  That's two-thirds of the annual US military budget.  It's more than the annual economic output of most countries.  Now imagine what it would cost to set up a permanent colony.  Then imagine what voters would think of diverting such vast sums to that endeavor, given what the same money could accomplish if applied to ongoing problems on Earth.

Antarctica has breathable air and Earth-normal gravity, and while some dream of changing Mars's atmosphere to make it more Earthlike (a far from simple or easy process, if it's even possible), we will never be able to change its gravity.

Gravity is important.  There have been cases of astronauts spending periods of up to a year in zero gravity in space, and we know that it causes several serious health problems, such as vision disturbances and loss of bone and muscle mass.  Mars's surface gravity is only one-third as strong as Earth's.  Given the problems caused by a few months in zero gravity, it seems impossible that an entire lifetime lived in Martian gravity wouldn't also have serious detrimental effects.  For example, if pregnancy (a stressful process even under ideal conditions) cannot proceed normally in Martian gravity, then humans will never be able to reproduce naturally there.

The only solution I've seen proposed for this problem is to build human habitat inside a huge permanently-spinning wheel so that centrifugal force would mimic Earth's gravity.  This might work for a small base comparable to those that exist in Antarctica, but it would be completely impractical for the normal towns and cities which talk of "colonizing Mars" implies.

Carl Sagan was right.  "Like it or not -- for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand."

Humans have managed to live permanently and even thrive in environments as hostile as the deserts of Arabia and Australia or the highlands of Tibet and Peru.  We have not done so in Antarctica, not even with modern technology, not even in the fringes of the continent which have exposed soil (not ice) which could conceivably be made arable.  If we haven't done it there, we're not going to do it on Mars either.


Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Sometimes I think people get these weird ideas from all the Sci-Fi movies about Mars out there.

21 January, 2020 09:38  
Blogger Lady M said...

Wow - so addressing climate change will cost us to dearly but colonizing Mars is a thing? Do these people ever think?

21 January, 2020 12:07  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

People are idiots when it comes to outer space. Living outside of earth would cost too much, would claim too many lives and would take too long to accomplish. Don’t you think that if they could make money off condos in the moon they would have already tried?



21 January, 2020 16:41  
Blogger Jack Vance said...

You are probably right. To be sure, how about we send Mike Pence to Mars and let him proselytize to any aliens he might encounter there?

21 January, 2020 17:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point these nutcases survivalist's ignore is how they plan to live on a dead planet.
stop and think of all the petro chemical plants placed close to the sea for ease of shipping. What happens when a big storm ala Sandy hits these unattended plants.
Oil storage and toxic poison plants along the Houston shipping lanes seem to either blow up or leak on a regular basis will they be safer when unattended with no maintence?
Oh and lets not forget nuclear plants like Fukushima or Chernyble will they be safer unattended.
so with immeasurable poison seeping into the oceans, fires burning unattended fertilizer plants in the midwest and not just big nuclear plants but small research labs that have small reactors not to mention nuclear weapons and reactors in ships who really can expect to survive on a toxic radio active planet or find food to eat or even try to gtow food in soil that has been poioned by rain spreading toxicity across the world.
Small details whack jobs seem to either overlook or purposefully ignore.

21 January, 2020 22:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: There's a general tendency to imagine that things must be plausible just because they appear on movies or TV -- Star Trek transporters, for example. Misleading analogies with the European age of exploration and colonization also play a role.

Lady M: It's a very odd sense of priorities.

Sixpence: It certainly would be dangerous. A third of our unmanned interplanetary probes have failed for one reason or another. A manned mission would be much more complex and thus more vulnerable.

Jack: Based on the Maher video, he might have already been there.

22 January, 2020 00:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Not sure what all that has to do with Mars.

22 January, 2020 00:04  
Anonymous Marvin the Martian said...

We shall resist all attempts to colonize our planet by using our Illidium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulators against yours.

22 January, 2020 04:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marvin: Still miffed about those unexpected germs from the War of the Worlds fiasco? :-)

22 January, 2020 04:38  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Old Bill gave me a good laugh on this {:-) Some really good points you make on this. I also remember you talking about this years ago, on how impractical this is. But, movies and books sell, which gets folks to thinking ... as a kid a remember stuff like that on the tele ... and folks love fantasy ... but of course, the points you make is solid. As far as our loved ones (billionaires), I knew they been talking about this for long ... and it's cool with me, if any of them (or all) from Bezos, to Zuckerberg, Musk, to Trump, etc, etc all wanted to go there with what money they have (money made off us), and they could all live (or die) happily ever after (a true story of love and unity) ... GO! That would clean up our planet on another avenue (dealing with them). I never heard that, about brewing Bud on Mars, wonder if that shit is actually true or just a joke? On the other hand, I feel that we are going to make some big changes and discoveries, that will change everything as we know it as a species, from gravity to life, reproduction, etc, including space travel ... in years to come, that may even be able to take humans "in some form" to very further distances in space ... I also feel that we will be able to improve the planet Earth at a point, including the environment, because of technologies and science that we don't have yet. I feel that AI will actually save us to a degree. I think what some of these sci- fi type minds are thinking, is sort of terraforming another planet such as Mars. But I also feel that there are other planets out there, that may have similar life like Earth in some form, but impossible at our point in time, to even get to go to, fund, or do anything, but I feel that we will eventually get to a point in the future where things like this start becoming more likely to achieve, and there will be folks who will attempt.Too many folks intoxicated with wealth don't give a shit enough right now about the Earth (at least they sure as Hell don't act like it), it'll be great, if we can make Earth better in the meantime, sadly, the excuse they always vent through their mouth puppets (politicians), is "where will the money come from?" ... if we didn't waste so much money and time on this billionaire class that runs our lives, maybe we would have some money to actually improve our societies and planet right now.

22 January, 2020 07:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Blogger Infidel753 said...
Anon: Not sure what all that has to do with Mars."

Talking about ridiculuos fantasies of the inane.
Settleing Mars, surviveing in mountains, magic man in the sky will save us.
People will not try to solve a problem where there is a chance of success while running off in pursuit of some fantasical pipe dream

22 January, 2020 10:50  
Blogger Oblio said...

While I'd agree that Mars is simply a bridge too far... for now, anyways... I'd highly recommend reading Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy 'Red Mars/ Green Mars/ Blue Mars' to get a whiff of colonization rationale and a really cool concept to make it happen. Yes, it's hard-core sci-fi but has a basis that is easy to connect with and is damned fun reading. Besides, us hoomans aren't very rational when it comes to things like this.

22 January, 2020 11:47  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

I mean...why not go to Mars? C'mon, has anyone ever read A PRINCESS OF MARS? Or seen THE EXPANSE (which is a very good show, BTW, and the books that the series is based on are some of the best modern space opera I've read in some time)?

...But in all seriousness--Mars isn't like Earth. It might have been at one time, but it isn't anymore. And yes, we can (and have, and should) send probes to Mars to study the planet; they cost less money and the loss of a probe is far better than the loss of human life.

And we could pursue what Gerry O'Neill proposed in the 1970s and look into building colonies at the Lagrange points around Earth--but that would require us to put aside certain differences and that is not as easy at it sounds.

I suppose the interest in landing people on Mars is that, well, our species has always had this streak of exploration in us. And there will always be those who will want to walk on another world--I know I'm guilty of this. But as you said--and as astronauts have said time and time again--we gotta take care of the world that we live on right now. And despite the horrific leadership we have in some countries right now, including ours, there are those who are working to make sure that life can be sustained on this planet. It's the only one we have right now, and there is no Planet B.

22 January, 2020 13:32  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

You forget the real reason for pursuing these Mars programs- it would be the greatest boondoggle for the defense industry in world history. Surely, you can see that that trumps all concerns about viability or even rationality.

22 January, 2020 14:09  
Blogger The New York Crank said...

>> The most fundamental objection, of course, is that no one has ever been able to think of a convincing reason for sending humans to Mars.<<

I beg to disagree. I can think of an extremely good reason for sending Donald Trump to Mars.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank

22 January, 2020 17:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ranch: Maher is usually pretty funny. This Mars business raises yet another reason why such massive concentration of money in a few hands is a bad thing -- what if a mega-rich individual becomes besotted with some crank project or idea and simply wastes or destroys a vast amount of wealth? Bezos has something like $140 billion, but he didn't create that -- his workers did.

Anon: Survivalists certainly have plenty of ridiculous fantasies.

Oblio: I'm always up for good science fiction. We just need to keep in mind that it is science fiction. At least novels don't cost $450 billion.

Marc: I saw a clip from The Expanse and thought it was impressive, but I don't know much about the show. Based on the evidence from our various Mars rovers, though, princesses would seem to be scarce on that planet.

Post-Singularity, of course, we'll be able to expand into space with impunity, but as long as we're biological organisms with all the limitations that implies, colonization beyond Earth just strikes me as too dangerous, and I can't think of any reason to do it.

But it's the "Earth first" argument I think is strongest. If we had trillions of dollars to spare to build Mars colonies, better to spend it on switching the whole Earth from fossil fuels to solar and wind and hydroelectric. For that kind of money we could really do it.

Green: Well, if they want to waste money, that's certainly the way to do it. I haven't seen much sign of the military being interested in Mars, though. What would they claim to be defending against? Antarctica would make a more convincing bonndoggle, if it comes to that.

22 January, 2020 17:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Crank: I'd send him to Antarctica too. Right in the middle of it, so he won't annoy the penguins.

22 January, 2020 17:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Marvin might be more annoyed with Earth blocking his view of Venus.

22 January, 2020 20:44  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Absolutely ... that's also my point, all these folks simply made their wealth off the backs of everyone else. Look at how much wealth we loose constantly, that DOES not even do the country overall a bloody damn bit of good. Yet, we are alwayz told we need to keep sacrificing more and more. It is so bad right now, that we are squeezing the the lowest common working classes and working poor for nickel and dime stuff such as food stamps, student lunch programmes/ nutrition, etc, etc ... just to give it to CEOs, mega corporations, or to even build useless infrastructure in some place like a remote area of Afghanistan, that has no goddamn use to anyone.

23 January, 2020 06:43  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Of course I was being sarcastic in a joking way about them all going to Mars

23 January, 2020 06:58  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

Infidel, the military has no interest in this idiocy. It is the military contractors, who stand to pocket trillions of dollars for a totally useless program, that would love to see it happen.

23 January, 2020 10:39  
Blogger Comrade Misfit said...

Mars doesn't have an equivalent of the Van Allen Belt. So the settlements on the surface would be blasted with solar wind, to the point that, as was so well put in The Martian, their cancers would have cancer.

05 January, 2021 13:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Another good point -- it really is an alien planet, nothing like Earth.

05 January, 2021 15:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are, of course, correct that, as far as we know, there is nothing presently on Mars worth the trouble of establishing even a small colony. But here again eventually we will be thinking about looking at materials available in the asteroid belt. Find yourself an asteroid of mixed heavy metals and rare earths in good concentrations and people are going to want it on Earth.

You could use the huge uninhabited expanses of Mars as a drop zone. You drop the asteroid on Mars where it is collected, bulk unwanted materials are chipped off, excess stored, shipments consolidated scheduled and sent on to lunar or earth orbit by way of a solar/nuclear powered mass driver/linear accelerator.

Given an investment in heavy equipment you might get by with a few dozen people on Mars. The expense of maintaining a presence paid for by the savings in cost of using Mars as way station, processing center, and warehouse. Versus trying to build a space station large enough to handle large chunks of asteroids or drop loads from the asteroid belt to lunar orbit in one shot.

05 January, 2021 16:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sorry, the economics just doesn't work. Even if there were asteroids out there made of solid gold or diamond, their value wouldn't come anywhere near the cost of shipping them back to Earth, regardless of how it was done. Not even close.

06 January, 2021 16:05  

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