If you're going to set up a colony on Mars, it's a good idea to have a plan, and scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have put one together. The team's step-by-step strategy involves setting up a long-term manned outpost at one of the Martian poles that could later be expanded into a permanent colony.
Over the past half century, there have been any number of ideas for setting up some sort of base on Mars in the near future, but these visions have often been rather restricted in scope. Many of these tended to be a bit piecemeal and short term when it came to establishing and growing a settlement on the Red Planet.
To help future mission planners, the EPFL team looked at the most likely place to set up a Mars base. Taking into consideration that the primary objective of a manned Mars mission will be to seek out evidence of present or past life, as well as the need for a reliable water supply for the base, the planners selected the Martian poles as the most likely site for a base that can be expanded over several generations.
"The poles may pose more challenges in the beginning, but they are the best location for the long term since they harbor natural resources that we may be able to use," says Anne-Marlene Rüede, lead author of the study. "We wanted to develop a strategy based on technologies that have been selected accordingly and outline a test scenario so that 20 years from now, astronauts will be able to carry out this kind of space mission."
Anticipating future technologies, the team envisions a base for a mission to the Martian north pole with a crew of six astronauts. This would land during the northern summer to allow for the crew to work during 288 days of continuous daylight and complete the preliminary work before returning to Earth.
However, humans would not be the pioneers for the project. Instead, robots would form the vanguard to build the first living quarters and to survey the local natural resources. In this way, the mission payloads could be kept to a minimum, though each landing would need to handle 110 tonnes of cargo.
According to the team, the first base would consist of three types of modules, made up of a central core, capsules, and a dome. The 12.5-meter-tall (41-ft), 5-meter-wide (16-ft) core would provide minimal living space, with the capsules acting as airlocks. But the most important part would be the dome, which would be made of polyethylene fabric covered with 3 m (10 ft) of ice to provide insulation as well as protection from radiation and micrometeors.
One particular innovation is a rocket crane similar to the one used to set down the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. To be sent on the second mission, this would be parked in orbit and be used to offload equipment from the interplanetary spacecraft and transfer it to the surface. This could used for up to six missions, with the fuel for surface launches being processed on Mars itself.
When set up, the first mission would last for nine months, but the team says that if resources like water, carbon dioxide, silicon, iron, aluminum, and sulfur can be extracted from the icecap, air, and soil, then the base could become self-sustaining in the long run. But first, the technology will need testing.
"We would need to conduct an initial mission to try everything out for the first time," says Rüede. "And the better that initial mission is thought out, the faster we will be able to get things going and move on to colonization. In reality, the scientists have not taken a stance on the prospect of colonizing Mars. But one of the key benefits of this research is that the systems it envisions could be used for robotic missions in general, whether Martian, lunar, terrestrial or otherwise."
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