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What Would It Take To Put An Olive Garden On Mars?

Pretty much hundreds of years of sustained colonization
CK Kimball
September 01 2021

It was 1610 when Galileo first observed the planet Mars. Over 400 years later, the rover Perseverance captured photos on the surface of “the red planet” and captured the hearts and screensavers of humans around the world in the process. In science fiction, the fantasy of living on Mars is basically imagining the floating car, moving sidewalks, and a life themed to space with a fast-food restaurant called “Burger Galactic Conquerer” and robot pets.

The reality, however, of a Mars colony is it could eventually be made to feel much like Earth... assuming humans can keep a colony going long enough. That’s a big “if” considering all of the challenges that life on Mars faces.

Artist’s Mars Settlement

Of the planets in closest proximity to Earth, Mars has the most compelling similarities to the planet of the humans with a solar day of 24 hours and 39 minutes, a similar axil tilt giving Mars seasons like Earth (so no one would lose summer or winter break, thank heavens), and while there’s no flowing water or oceans there is water ice.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end and the other quirks of Mars the planet are gnarly. Mars is smaller, less dense, boasts a surface gravity that’s 38% of Earth’s, no magnetosphere to block out solar particle events and cosmic rays from reaching the surface. The planet has an insanely low atmospheric pressure and a thin atmosphere that does NOT filter ultraviolet light along with wide and wild differences in temperature between night and day. Dust storms are common and can rage for days, blocking out almost all light while they do. And it’s quite cold with mean surface temperatures of 125 and 23 °F. There’s no rain, no clouds and Martian soil is toxic due to relatively high concentrations of chlorine and associated compounds. Plus, the high radiation exposure from that thin atmosphere and lack of magnetosphere is no party.

So colonizing is going to be tricky. And a very long process despite SpaceX’s “highly confident” assertions of landing humans on Mars by 2026. Terraforming and genetic tinkering (such as with CRISPR) are brought up on occasion as a means to jumpstart the planet environmentally and tweak human genetics to withstand the planetary atmospheric differences. But those methodologies would take at least hundreds of years to be fully useful. This leaves humans to adapt to the planets challenges as it is.

The first colonists would land to establish base. Since Mars is lacking oxygen, water, plants, animals (that we know of... dun, dun, dun), and basically everything that supports life on planet Earth, the first humans on Mars will have to bring it and build it. First bases will most likely be on the surface requiring sun shields to block out radiation and strong enough to withstand days of dust storms.

Already an instrument called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) has been breaking off CO2 in the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen. It is only ten minutes of oxygen, but possibly, if left continuously running, setting up several MOXIE’s or similar instruments could do the trick. Then, of course, there’s developing greenhouses and mining the planet for more water sources which would most likely be dormant veins of ice underground.

Perseverance on Mars: NASA

But that’s all what we expect from years of growing familiar with ISS and SpaceX and Blue Origins boasting. What could a colonized Mars, the machine built and running so to speak, look like? As mentioned, there’s still hundreds of years before humans could go bouncing around carelessly on the surface. The only other option is establishing “city” systems underground, which isn’t as depressing as it may sound as it wouldn’t be the first-time humanity has found refuge inside of a planet instead of on top. In the past there was the Derinkuyu underground city in Turkey, created by humans to protect themselves from invading armies. A modern example is RÉSO, Montreal, Canada, which is more if an underground mall connecting different metro stations, but still an interesting example of what life could be on the radiated red planet.

Samantha Cristoforetti ISS: NASA

Most culture and future-planning is based on the environment in which humans are in, so it would go to say that the culture and design of these imagined underground cities would be inspired by the life led on Earth and influenced by life on Mars. Currently, researchers are observing different materials, such as wood, to see how they function in space and eventually on Mars. Future underground cities would most likely be a fascinating mix of the designs and features we’re familiar with on Earth.

It's easy to imagine cave cities with air pumped in by scaled up MOXIES on the surface, water mined from ice deposits and sold bottled for simplicity, and a neighborhood of wooden craftsman style houses developed in an ancient dormant lava tube.

So, if the question is “will there be an Olive Garden on Mars” the answer is… if we give it enough time.



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