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article imageOp-Ed: Is Elon Musk's Mars colony viable? Yes, if seriously addressed

By Paul Wallis     Jun 22, 2017 in Science
Sydney - Elon Musk has gone against prevailing wisdom with a statement that a working Mars colony with large numbers of colonists. The current thinking is that the technical difficulties have to be solved first. That thinking is also pretty turgid and negative.
Musk’s statement is a challenge to the current projections for a Martian colony in more ways than one. He’s talking about large numbers of big, cheaper spacecraft able to take hundreds of people, and a fully functional society.
That’s really getting out of the box. NASA is talking about difficulties, radiation exposure, and other basics. A colony would be a long way off, requiring major technological and logistics capacity.
Criticisms and major issues
A recently released crisp  hi-resolution image of a relatively recent  in geological terms  crater i...
A recently released crisp, hi-resolution image of a relatively recent, in geological terms, crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The statement has also come under some rather stringent criticism from planetary experts, which find a few holes in the theory of “compressing” the Martian atmosphere to make it breathable, warming up the planet, and the ability to deliver spacecraft able to achieve the movement of people and assets to create the Martian colony.
These criticisms do have some teeth. Terraforming a planet is no minor exercise. One criticism is that Mars has been losing atmosphere for billions of years, and has no magnetic field, so how would the new atmosphere be contained.
The problems with the criticisms
Actually, these are all standard arguments. Scientists and major writers have been discussing the Martian colony idea for many years. There’s nothing much new in the current criticisms. They’re mainly aimed at Martian colonization in general, and Musk’s statements in particular. The problem with the criticisms is that they’re pointing out problems, not pointing out solutions.
Here are a few basic unavoidable points about colonizing Mars:
• Current spacecraft payloads are ridiculously inadequate, averaging around five percent of the total mass of any manned mission.
• Rockets aren’t very efficient at all. A more efficient space drive like the EM drive would change the game drastically, and offer viable Earth to Mars support much more economically.
• Mars is an unknown quantity in terms of risks on the ground. Micro dust, lack of cover and hard radiation are only a few of the possible problems.
• Habitats, food, water and shelter must be immediately available for Martian explorers, let alone large numbers of colonists. Mars isn’t a place where you can live in the open. Habitats also need to be secure, safe and thoroughly tested to ensure no failures.
• Colonists need to be able to manage problems on the ground themselves, in the absence of fast support from Earth. That’s particularly important regarding health and any emergency issues.
• Mars is vulnerable to anything which hits it, with no truly protective atmosphere. Nobody knows what sort of micro bombardment Mars gets, and it could be very dangerous. (Another reason for underground, better protected shelters.)
A few possible solutions
Mars as it really looks  and lots of things to explore.
Mars as it really looks, and lots of things to explore.
I’ve been watching the Mars colonization and theories for many years. I’ve contributed to InnoCentive challenges on this subject. I’ve read the various comments about spreading human infections on Mars, and written a story or two in my books about it. I therefore have a fairly jaded, but still optimistic, view of debates which don’t do much, if anything, to advance Martian colonization. Most of the practical thinking is still dealing with using old technologies, old basic concepts and much worse, very old ideas.
There are some obvious solutions:
• Underground habitats to deal with radiation issues and dust storms.
• Hydrogen/oxygen synthesis to deliver water and onsite fuel.
• CH4 (methane) as a source for hydrogen and carbon.
• Chemically or thermally processed oxides for materials
• Infrared solar panels for power systems and heating.
This is roughly the Radio Shack version of possible solutions, but there’s nothing in them which can’t be done quite easily with existing technologies.
The spacecraft issues, however, are more complex, and demand a lot of material to set up:
• Anything is going to be better than rockets. EM drive, ion drive, plasma drive, soda pop, you name it; the payload demands require super-efficient drives.
• Artificial gravity, (for which models have been around for decades), will reduce the physical stresses of long space trips.
• Any form of radiation shielding, like electronic shielding, should be part of the basic design. There’s no knowing what a couple of years’ worth of hard radiation can do to unprotected people.
One thing Musk has done, much to his credit, is to draw attention to the economics of major space programs and large scale operations. Musk is no stranger to the realities of space technology costs. SpaceX is one of the biggest and more successful of private space tech companies, and even talking about major logistics for Mars will be a move in the right direction. The more thinking about the problems, the more likely viable solutions will be developed. At the moment, there’s virtually nothing solid being considered regarding these major issues.
My advice:
Do NOT underestimate Mars as a high risk scenario. Everything should be considered dangerous until proven safe.
• Get the drive right.
• Get the payloads right.
• Get the costs and funding right.
• Develop the necessary protections for travel to Mars.
• Multiple-redundant safety for habitats is essential.
Musk is one of the few who’s able to raise Mars as a serious subject for consideration in this era of absurdities and get real attention. I hope his ideas get a fair hearing, not just more negativity and lack of actual thinking.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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