Starting the Settlement of Mars

View from of the main window of the first human habitat on Mars (artist's impression).

For decades many people have been attracted to going to Mars.

However, none of us have gone there. Up till now, 2018, a voyage to Mars would have required an enormous emptying of the national coffers of the United States, or, perhaps, Russia or China. In the 1990's Carl Sagan pointed out that the cost of going to Mars was then just too big to justify to the US taxpayers, given that normal people could not be expected to value the returns of this exploration so highly as he did.

Since Sagan, what has been the progress with reducing the cost of visiting or settling Mars?

The main avenues for reducing these costs are either to reduce the cost of transport to Mars per unit mass of things transported (sometimes called the "specific transport cost") or to reduce the mass of things transported there (or both).

Achieving substantial reductions in specific transport costs is difficult, and there is only one avenue for doing it that might produce factor 2, 4 or 8 reductions: reuse of rocket parts and whole rocket stages. Elon Musk's SpaceX has made impressive progress in making rockets reusable, and Blue Origin is also working on reusability. However, achieving an additional factor of 2 or 4 reduction in specific transport costs will be very difficult, and further progress hinges on developing reusable rockets that are also very large. The up-front costs for starting the settlement of Mars will still be enormous if many large mass payloads are transported to the Red Planet.

Reducing the mass of things transported to Mars is also possible, and probably has greater potential to reduce overall costs than reducing specific transport costs. It can be done using automated equipment, and robots to process local resources to make things on Mars.

Robert Zubrin and David Baker (1990 and after) were the first to propose a detailed plan for extended stays on Mars that took advantage of local Mars resources (i.e., the atmosphere and sunlight) and automated equipment to make rocket propellant.

The Mars atmosphere and surface sunlight can be used to produce electricity, fuel and oxygen (together these are both a form of energy storage and also propellant for rocket and other transport vehicles, while separately they are, respectively, a chemical reducing agent and an oxidizing agent). These uses of the atmosphere and sunlight will be good and doing them will reduce the costs of visiting or settling Mars, but they do not provide solid materials for the fabrication or repair of useful solid objects or for building needed structures. The most usable and available Mars resource for making useful solid materials is regolith (sand and dust), which is ubiquitous on the planet's surface.

Regolith first needs to be mined before it can be processed to make solid materials. Martian regolith and other rock mining is now an active field of research and development that is led by the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations (GMRO) laboratory at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Honey Bee Robotics in Pasadena. In this important area progress is being made that will enable the settlement of Mars.

In August 2016 Two Planet Steel produced the first detailed plan to start the human settlement of Mars, wherein this settlement start was based on robot operated mining of Martian regolith, steel production, the fabrication of finished steel-made products, including power generation equipment, in tandem with oxygen production and water liberation, and wherein this can all be carried out on Mars prior to the arrival of the first human.

An important point to emphasize is the ability to make power generation plant from locally produced carbon steel using robots and only regolith, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and sunlight. The power generation plant would be for both electricity production and also for high-temperature thermal power that can efficiently drive many useful chemical reactions and a lot of material processing. The important strategic structural point to realize about the ability to make power generation plant locally on Mars from local resources is that with this ability comes the ability to set off exponential growth both in the size of a starting Mars settlement and also in the capabilities of the settlement's technology infrastructure. With just a few humans, robots and increasing power production the technology infrastructure will grow exponentially in quantity and rapidly in capabilities to include more power generation plant, agriculture, nitrogen capture and production of ammonia, ceramics, basalt fiber, glass, then silicon crystals, widescale water collection, then plastics and rubber production and on and on, with this the first and subsequent Mars settlements will quickly reach near self-sufficiency from support from Earth.

Since the 2016 "steel seeds" plan was written, Two Planet Steel has worked to develop the actual robotic, steel-making technology that will be a key to make it happen. The development of this technology has moved on and passed numerous tests - robotic steel-making will work on Mars.

Share on Facebook
Share by email
Share on Twitter
Share on Google+
Share on LinkedIn
Follow TPS:
Follow on Facebook