This is part 5 of my series on Mars, planet of surprises, great to explore, not so great to colonize. It seems that a human mission to the surface of Mars significantly increases the risk of irreversibly contaminating Mars. If that’s right, the best way to explore Mars would be with telerobotics or telepresence.
Airplanes For The Martian Atmosphere
This is an example of an entomopter, which flies like a bumble bee but on Mars can be far larger because of the thin air.
On Mars it might be easier for machines to fly with insect type flight with rapidly beating wings, using the bumble bee wings vortex effect for lift. On Mars that can work scaled up to wings a meter across because of the thin atmosphere also assisted by the low gravity. That’s the idea of the entomopter. One way you could build telerobots able to fly on Mars.
This could be controlled by telepresence. It can take off from the surface and land again repeatedly. So you could fly about on the surface of Mars, and control it from orbit – one of the “super powers” of your avatars on the surface would be the ability to fly.
NASA has explored many different flying vehicles for Mars, but none of them have actually flown. Not just large scale planes. The problem with large scale conventional planes on the surface of Mars is that the take off speed is well over 200 mph. You can deal with that by launching it from orbit, but though useful, that has to be a one off flight. When you run out of fuel, you have to land on the surface, and your flight is over for good.
It is much more interesting if your plane can take off and land again like the entomopter. NASA have explored that as well, smaller, model airplane sized planes with a camera and a radio.
With one of these planes they found a way to put it into a stall at a 70° angle towards the Earth, They found that in this configuration, it falls reasonably slowly, rather like a parachute. The plan was to add thrusters for a vertical soft landing on the Martian surface.
After a vertical tail first landing like this, your airplane could take off again, using the same thrusters. This is a plane that could land on the surface of Mars and then fly again repeatedly. Essentially, it’s a design for a miniaturized Mars version of VTOL flight.
In the early days of the space shuttle, the plan was to fly a space shuttle every week. One of the things they could do with all those launches is to send lots of airplanes to Mars for close up exploration of the surface.
It is tricky to control them from Earth of course. You won’t know what happened on Mars until minutes later, so it all has to be completely autonomous.
With a human orbital or fly by mission however, our astronauts could control these planes in real time by telepresence from orbit. Could have much more ambitious plans.
We could fly these “model airplanes on Mars” up and down the length of the Valles Marineres, into the crater of Olympus Mons or the Hellas basin, fly around the ancient coastline of the northern ocean bed, explore the river valleys, roam the rim of the ice caps.
We could look in at the entrances of caves from on Mars close up, fly right up close to the interesting features such as the warm seasonal flows and the Martian geysers, and maybe take close up movies of the Martian geysers erupting etc etc.
The planes could be released from orbit, or launched from the rovers on the surface using thrusters to get them into the air.
Wild idea – feather light model planes with low take-off speeds for the thin atmosphere of Mars
Amongst the other ideas about flying planes, I thought I’d put forward a couple of ideas of my own (thought up in discussion with a friend). This is to do with the 200 mph take off speed for aircraft on Mars and whether you can do anything about it.
I was talking to Billy Stiltner recently, he flies model planes able to fly slowly, slowly, almost float through the air. In case you haven’t seen this before, you can find videos of these featherlight planes on youtube – this is one of them showing an ultra slow collision of two of the planes with each other.
He said he doesn’t think that there is a minimum airflight speed for an aircraft, if you can make it of light weight enough materials.
So even though it is usually said a plane needs to be fast to fly on Mars, perhaps that’s because they design them around the idea of a heavy plane with a heavy payload. You don’t need strong materials, since the atmosphere is so thin. Especially if you avoid flight during the dust storms.
Even during the strongest winds on Mars, they are fast winds in a near vacuum, in a thin atmosphere corresponding to 30 or 40 km up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Our rovers have never had any problems with wind damage (the only wind related problems are to do with dust spread by the winds when they cover the solar panels). They have many delicate appendages (cameras, solar panels etc).
So we wondered about the idea, could you have an aircraft made of light materials which would be flimsy on Earth, yet are robust enough for the thin atmosphere of Mars? It could fly slowly – at least = obviously not as slowly as in the thick atmosphere of the Earth, but a lot slower than any of the other ideas.
These would be planes with almost transparent wings of mylar and the like, and their structures could be built of reasonably strong ultralightweight materials such as aerographite. They would be featherlight, but strong enough for Mars.
Billy also talked about “round the pole flying“. Again many videos of this on youtube if you haven’t seen it, here is one:
We came up with the idea – on Mars, what if you hang your planes from a tall pole, on a line short enough so they don’t hit the ground, and set them flying around. With a heavy rover like Curiosity you could probably set the thing 100 meters into the atmosphere or more and with the thin atmosphere, there isn’t much chance of it blowing over.
If necessarily you can add guy-lines to stabilize the pole. This would be especially useful if you want to carry your planes and the launching pole on a smaller mission or rover. A tiny rover like pathfinder could peg in the guys or loop them over or around boulders.
Once it is all set up, you set the planes flying round and round like the round the pole flying for model aircraft. This simulates an enormously long runway on the surface of Mars. Eventually they fly fast enough to reach their take off velocity. Then they release their leads and fly off on their missions.
When they come back again after their flights, you set the guys spinning fast around the pole, until they reach the flight speed of the airplanes. The planes then dock onto the hooks at the end of the leads. I’m sure with all the things NASA can do, they would be able to find a way for the planes to dock with the leads when they come back again.
Then the plane flies round and round the pole, as it gradually slows down, ike landing on an enormously long runway – and then when it “lands” it goes into a box on the rover, or some kind of shelter for the planes in the dust storms.
If it has a shelter, it only needs to fly in good weather on Mars, permitting yet lighter construction.
Since the planes are so light, and especially if the camera and transmitter can also be miniaturized and light as well, you might be able to have dozens of them stored on a single rover. They could be designed to fold up when not in use, andvfor transport to Mars. Or they could b be designed to stack on top of each other for compact storage (or both).
That is just a back of the envelope type idea, maybe someone would be interested in exploring it a bit further.
Other NASA ideas – lots of small gliders
To go back to the NASA ideas, another idea they had was to release lots of very small gliders with cameras on them from orbit, for instance all the way along the length of the Valles Marineres. You would have dozens of tiny gliders and they would fly along it and photograph it from really close up.
Ideas for telepresence control of telerobotic avatars on Mars
So now let’s go back to the telerobotics and take a look at how the avatars on Mars can be operated. Here is the artists impression created for the 2012 Telerobotics Symposium again:
You see the astronauts operating telerobots on the surface in a conventional way, operating them from a desk.
But there is another way to do this. A lot of the technology being developed for games is useful for telepresence.
One of these tools is Microsoft Kinekt. This software uses cameras to take photographs of you from different angles, and using that, is able to build a 3D model of yourself in the game. As you move your arms, head and so on, Kinekt follows your actions and your virtual avatar in the game does exactly what you do.
Another new technology developed for games is the miniaturized omnidirectional platform. These used to be huge and also heavy things, You couldn’t really imagine putting the early models onto a spacecraft.
An omnidirectional platform lets you run and walk in any direction. You have virtual reality goggles on and you set off and walk through your virtual landscape or run through it. As you travel, whichever direction you go, your platform beneath your feet moves exactly the same speed in the opposite direction.
You stay roughly in the same place in the middle of the platform. It’s a cleverly designed platform with a surface which can move continuously in any direction and is programmed to go in the opposite direction to your motion. So whichever direction you walk or run, you always remain in the middle of the platform. You drift slightly as you change your speed but you then drift back into the middle. But from your own perspective it feels as if you are walking or running in the virtual world.
The breakthrough for this technology for games came with a kickstarter project to miniaturize these omnidirectional platforms. They achieved their funding goal, and the platform was developed, and you can buy it now, an omnidirectional platform, for a few hundred dollars.
This is used by gamers and is robust and also small and lightweight. What happens is, you have a harness around your waist, to keep yourself suspended. Then you have a platform just large enough for your feet to move back and forth. This is slightly curved and you run and walk on it, suspended about your waist.
Using this technology, gamers can run and walk around in the virtual environment of their games. You can watch youtube videos of this, split screen shows how the gamers run and walk in the platform and simultaneously their avatars run and walk in the virtual environments.
The virtuix omni – a low cost omni-directional treadmill used for immersive experience by gamers.
The virtuix omni is lightweight, and quite small, currently 4 ft in diameter and they hope to reduce this further. You could easily put that on a spaceship.
So a little more into the future, why not work with robots that are humanoid, walk and run like a human? You don’t need to worry so much about autonomy (as in the robonaut) because they would mainly be controlled by humans, for telepresence. They are like your avatar in a computer game.
They could eventually have legs like humans. But in the immediate future could follow the plan for HERRO, and do them with whegs (wheels shaped like several feet joined together at the axis that are great for driving over rough terrain). So you walk or run around on your omnidirectional treadmill and as you do so your rover drives around on the surface in the same direction on its whegs.
If your avatar telerobots on the surface ar equipped with whegs, they can move over the rough terrain of Mars in the same direction and same speed as you walk on your omnidirectional treadmill in orbit. This is something we can do right away.
At a later stage you could have humanoid avatars able to copy all the movements of your legs and run and walk exactly like humans on Mars, or indeed semi-autonomous once we crack the difficult engineering challenge of equipping autonomous robots with fast bipedal gaits.
So, your robot avatar on the surface would just run around and through immersive technology you could even touch and feel things through haptic feedback, and you could see the landscape and automatically have enhanced vision of the surface as well. All of this as well could be streamed back to Earth once we have high speed connections back to Earth from Mars, for instance using laser communications.
What I just described is something we could do almost right away, for some near future launch.
We have the virtuix omni, we have whegs, we have kinekt, and we can power rovers on the surface of Mars using Robert Zubrin’s idea to manufacture many tonnes of methanol on the surface of Mars from feedstock of a small amount of hydrogen brought from Earth.
This “avatar” type exploration of Mars also means that if there is an accident, you have an entire record of what was happening. You don’t need to rely on potentially faulty human memories; you can step through the recordings to find out what happened and learn how to avoid it in future.
This could be an immersive experience and it would actually be better than walking around on the surface of Mars in person, because you have enhanced vision automatically (streaming video easy to enhance) and superhuman capabilities. You can make your avatar on the surface as small as you like or as large as you like, as strong as you like.
Your avatar could be tiny and explore caves that you couldn’t possibly have a full scale human fit into. Or it could be large and strong and able to hold a heavy load at arms length for hours without tiring.
I don’t think that is very far into the future, being able to explore ideas like that. Starting with the simpler form of telerobotics which we have in the picture and can do already, eventually could have fully humanoid telerobots on the surface with hands, legs, feet duplicating humans exactly .
Also something we can probably expect in the near future is the ability to explore Mars using all these different flying machines as avatars via telepresence.
By then we will have high data rate streaming to Earth probably by laser communication. So would be an immersive experience for viewers on Earth too, you would be able to tap in and experience the Mars surface exploration from a first person point of view, as it happens, if you want to (doubtless with edited highlights etc).
This is not sci fi. It just needs binocular vision on the rovers and improved data streaming.
Searches for ancient life on Mars – perfect conditions – somewhere on Mars
Now let’s look at what we might find on Mars. I talked about present day life, now just going to talk briefly about past life. The main focus in this article is about the whole issue of humans there and humans exploring or colonizing the surface. Of course one of the things you are really interested in is past life.
In the present day we saw that the surface of Mars is very cold, dry, extremely thin atmosphere and any life living there is very much living on the edge. But in the past Mars was far more habitable. It was a multi-decade long exploration process before we finally discovered this. But it is now incontrovertible. You see things like this:
This photograph was taken by a camera able to do high resolution 3D pictures of Mars. Once it is in the computer you can tilt it around and look at it at any angle.
This is totally proven to be a river bed. This is a river from the Hesperian period on Mars, a time of great floods on the surface of Mars.
It is somewhat imperfectly understood, how these floods could have been caused. One idea is that large undeground aquifers flooded the surface with huge amounts of water. You find giant craters that were flooded one after another, with giant rivers between them. Perhaps the water didn’t flow in them for long at a time, as they seem to be flood channel type rivers.
There are other precipitation formed rivers as well (you can tell by the pattern of tributaries), though whether snow or rain is somewhat disputed.
These ancient rivers on Mars provide an obvious habitat for past life. It turns out that they also have great potential for preserving remains of that life as well.
First, the rovers have found clays and sulphates on Mars, which are perfect for preserving organics. Then, because of the very cold conditions on Mars, you have the possibility of absolutely exquisite preservation of life on Mars. so long as the life can go into this deep freeze very quickly,
You may have heard of the frozen mammoths which get unearthed from time to time in Siberia. For instance this baby mammoth was so well preserved you can see the colour of its hair. It is now known that the mammoths were red heads. It’s stomach preserved the contents of its last meal, so you can find out what food they last ate and things like that.
These mammoths were preserved in the permafrost in freezing conditions.
Perfect preservation – if you can get away from cosmic radiation degradation – rarer than a fossil on Earth
Ancient life on Mars could be preserved in conditions far far colder than Siberia. The permafrost layer is just a couple of cms below the surface, and further down the ground remains at a near constant -50C or so.
These are near perfect conditions for preservation, so long as you can get deep enough to avoid the possibility of cosmic radiation degradation. Cosmic radiation is highly penetrating radiation from the rest of our galaxy and even from other galaxies, it can penetrate meters into rock. Though short term it is not hazardous to microbes, over long periods of millennia, and especially over hundreds of thousands of years, it will degrade any dormant life or any frozen evidence of past life.
So to be preserved, the remains need to get perhaps ten meters below the surface, and need to get there within a few thousand years (a few hundred thousand years at most).
If one of those floods created a sudden huge deposit on top of life in a salt or clay deposit, that it could protect it from cosmic radiation. Rivers and floods can carve out caves, so if you are lucky, the process might also create underground passages to give you easy access to these deposits.
The deposits could also be excavated to the surface in very recent meteorite strikes (so no time to degrade on the surface). Or else, you have to drill down from the surface, likely to be tougher as it will be hard to know exactly where to drill to find what you are looking for.
So that is one idea. It is thought that it is quite possible you may find pristine deposits like this on Mars. But our rovers like Curiosity are unlikely to find pristine deposits on the surface because it gets degraded by cosmic radiation over periods of hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
You probably need to explore Mars for quite a while before you find, what hopefully will be pristine deposits from these early periods. This will give you an idea of what life was there in the Hesperian period, if there was any. This life might be locally abundant but only during the floods.
There might also be life well below the surface. When you get to depths of a few km, you get enough pressure from the rocks above, and enough geothermal heat for water to be stable in its liquid phase. So long as you have water there, that would be a habitat for life. Similar places on Earth have abundant life, and this could be a present day habitat on Mars too
To find abundant life on the surface however, you probably have to go back billions of years.
Ancient Martian oceans
Further back in time, before the time of the great floods, there is incontrovertible evidence now of oceans. This is the Noachian period, the time of the oceans. There was another ocean a billion years later as well (briefly).
I said that Mars had very little water compared to the Earth with our deep seas. But it still had quite a lot, enough for a large shallow ocean.
It’s not really known why it lost its atmosphere, another unknown, the Marvin mission to Mars is hoping to settle that or at least to find out more about that. That is why the seas were a bit implausible to start with because people couldn’t see how it could have had enough atmosphere for it, and we still don’t know how it happened. But there is incontrovertible evidence. Because you have the evidence of a coast-line. It goes all the way around
This is Mars as seen from the North. About a third of the surface of Mars was covered by the sea. There would be other smaller seas as well. The coastline goes all the way around.
At first this coastline discovery was rather controversial because it seemed to vary in height, which would surely be impossible for a coastline of a large ocean. But the Mars surface deforms a bit, depending on polar wander. After they took account of that they found out that it was actually all on a level, and evidence mounted that it was indeed an ancient ocean sea shore.
Indeed a paper published in July of this year gave extra supporting evidence with a detailed study of the remains of a delta that emptied into the ancient sea. Using the 3D imaging as for the river photograph, you can look closely and show that the channels go the right direction and there are other features too that show that it was indeed a delta going into the ocean.
Perfect conditions for origin of life – perhaps?
These oceans probably were habitable. At any rate, there must have been organics delivered by the comets and the meteorites. These organics included all the amino acids. Also all the DNA bases, and also including some chemicals that could perhaps have been used as alternative bases but weren’t used in modern DNA.
It is actually completely shrouded in mystery how life started. Exobiologists are absolutely fascinated by Mars because there is no idea what there might be there. There might be RNA, then there are other molecules, like DNA but with a different backbone, somewhat simpler than DNA or RNA, such as PNA (peptide nucleic acid). The general term is XNA.
Then there is the possibility of XNA that spirals in the opposite direction to DNA, and you could have something where we just haven’t thought of the idea of how it works at all. Not like DNA. You could have a triple helix, but that is rather a tame idea. It could be something we haven’t thought of, the way it works.
So it could be that the evidence for that is there. And even if it isn’t there, even if there is no life there at all, precursors for life would be there.
It is very interesting to know what happens to an ocean left for hundreds of millions of yeasr with all the ingredients for life. We simply can’t do an experiment like that, to see what happens to a planetary scale ocean over those time periods.
Mars is so valuable
So this is Mars, it is our unbelievably precious planet in our solar system. We are so lucky to have a planet like that in the same solar system as us. We can discover things that you could only discover otherwise by travelling to another solar system. Even then it wouldn’t have the same origin as Earth, it wouldn’t have formed at the same time as Earth in the same solar system.
It is so wonderful to be able to make direct comparisons with Earth as well. You could learn so much from Mars either way. Even if there has been no life there, just to see what happened in this ocean after a hundred million years. Did it form some of the various precursors of life? This PNA and various forms of XNA? Did it form a metabolism? Were there some kind of primitive cells that almost reproduced but didn’t quite exactly reproduce? Or what happened there?
Until we are absolutely sure, until we really understand Mars very thoroughly, then I think we need to be amazingly careful not to spoil what we have got there and not to lose this wonderful chance to explore Mars and to see what is actually there. We just have to step very carefully until we are really sure what we are doing there.
We need to be very careful about how we deal with Mars, not to spoil this amazingly precious resource we have in our solar system.
Perils of terraforming Mars
I don’t think we should start with trying to terraform Mars. We have absolutely no idea how to do that. It is significantly different from Earth. Even if there is no interesting life on Mars. Even if we are able to complete all the scientific investigations.
It seems to me unlikely that we could have a reasonably thorough understanding of present and past life on a complex planet with the same land area as the Earth, in a decade or two.
But suppose we do and we start to think, “We’ll try to terraform Mars”. Well we simply don’t know how to do it because it is so different from Earth.
It would be difficult enough to duplicate Earth on an Earth-like planet even with what we know about Earth. We don’t know Earth that thoroughly, to be really confident that all the systems would start working as a living planet just like the Earth does, without falling into any kind of a loop that takes it into disaster.
But in the case of Mars we are talking about a planet which has many differences from Earth. For one thing its axial tilt is continually changing far more than the Earth. It hasn’t got the stabilizing influence of the Moon. At times it tilts so far that its equatorial regions receive less sunlight than its poles and it develops equatorial ice caps.
It doesn’t have tides. It doesn’t have any continental drift. This means that we would have to find a different carbon cycle, a completely different way of returning carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Otherwise it would lose all its atmosphere over geological timescales.
There are ways of doing that, of returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere using micro-organisms that are able to release it from carbontes. But it is one thing to have a back of the envelope calculation, which suggests that maybe you can do it. It is another thing to work out an entire ecoystem that is going to be stable and work long term.
Also bear in mind that once you have lots of water on Mars you also have the possibility of snowball Mars (as the tilt varies). Without continental drift, it might be impossible for the planet to get out of that. Especially if you start adding extra water to Mars (making total ice cover possible), and with the axial tilt changing so much.
Future generations of beings on a terraformed Mars
Then if you terraform Mars, I would say this is not just for present day Mars but whatever beings might be there in the future. So once you have got a working ecosystem on Mars (hopefully), what if it is only going to work for ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years? I would say that whatever living beings are on Mars a hundred thousand years from now, they have rights just as we do. We are only separated in time.
They might even be our descendents; they might be human beings that have lost their technology. They might be non technological and have evolved from other creatures. Or maybe they are like dolphins, on the borderline of what we think of as Extra Terrestrial Intelligences. Still, these beings might be in this situation we have set up for them where their atmosphere will disappear, because we didn’t have the forethought or knowledge or ability to set it up as a completely sustaining ecosystem.
So they would be in a terrible situation. They live on this wonderfully habitable planet which is gradually losing its atmosphere and they might not have the technology or the knowledge to do anything about it.
So I think we need to have a sense of responsibility for the future and not just for the present and for the next few decades or so.
So we need to be caerful to keep our exploration reversible, because of the interest of Mars for study of life, but also for terraforming.
Let’s suppose we’ve decided we don’t want to put humans or micro-organisms on the surface, and we want to keep our exploration reversible. But there are things that we can do; you may be surprised at how much is possible within those parameters.
Plants on Pristine Mars
You can put plant seeds on the surface, as these can be sterilized.
You can grow plants with hydroponics and aeroponics. The difference here is that with hydroponics the plants grow directly in water, and in Aeroponics you use a mist, so it needs less water (which may be useful on Mars).
There are different versions of these technologies. Some depend on micro-organisms but some do not. Instead of having micro-organisms you supply whatever the plant needs in chemical form in either water, or if it is aeroponics, in the mist. The only life you have is the plant seed.
You may use the Mars soil, or just use mist, depending on what you want to do.
This microbe free version of hydroponics / aeroponics introduces no risk of contaminating Mars so long as you do it with great care. The only thing that will grow on Mars as a result of this experiment are these plants that you introduced to Mars.
“Little Prince” rover designed to support a single plant on Mars. Since seeds can be sterilized (unlike humans or animals), these could be grown without any risk of contaminating Mars with Earth micro-organisms.
It’s possible that plants may be the first living Earth colonists of another planet.
So that introduces the possibility that you could have greenhouses on the surface of Mars and these could grow food for the colonists in orbit. They may have plenty to eat in their habitats anyway by then, but you could grow food on Mars too, maybe delicacies or things that grow particularly well on Mars or medicinal plants or whatever. Also you could have large plants, maybe trees (perhaps growing far larger in the Mars light gravity) or whatever else grows best on the surface of Mars.
In the near future, I think the thing to do is paraterraforming rather than terraforming. You can do this even if your eventual aim is terraforming.
In this approach, you cover areas of the surface of Mars with greenhouse habitats and this will let you grow whatever you like on the surface of Mars in controlled conditions.
To start with you would only grow large plants from seeds, easy to control.
Later on if you do decide you want to terraform Mars what you could do is to start to grow green algae in these greenhouses. Of course this contaminates Mars with microbes, so you only do it once you have a thorough understanding of the planet, and you do it in a controlled way.
If the aim is to eventually terraform Mars, then you need to find ways to release carbon dioxide to make the atmosphere thicker. Also you need to find ways to add water, possibly by comets (or if you are lucky it is still there).
This could be a way to get your oxygen. Cyanobacteria are more efficient at photosynthesizing than plants.
If you do it like this, you could have algae everywhere, covering the surface of Mars with algae. That would be the fastest way to create an oxygen atmosphere using life.
But for that to work you want to make sure you have nothing there that is going to eat your algae, and nothing there that is going to compete with it, and nothing there that is going to use up your oxygen as soon as it is produced. So if you have aerobes on the surface of Mars, then I think there is quite a possibility that it is going to interfere.
The geneticist and biophysicist Robert Haynes coined the word Ecopoesis for the process of establishing an ecosystem by introducing life in one stage after another. It has been worked out in considerable detail for Mars. But still, this is somewhat sketchy becauuse we don’t know how to set up all the cycles so that they will work long term. Certainly short term then the idea is you introduce the green algae first. The aerobes come at a considerably later stage in the process.
So that is another reason to keep Mars pristine and not introduce any life to it in any way including micro-organisms. Because they could interfere with terraforming once we have the understanding maybe by studying exoplanets and also by having experience of very large habitats like the Stamford Torus. So then we might get to the stage where we have such immense knowledge, and also able to do simulations in advanced quantum computers or something like that then we might be able to responsibly terraform Mars.
I’ve written more about this in “Would Microbes From This Astronaut Make It Impossible For Anyone To Terraform Mars – Ever?”
Mars forming Mars – like an exoplanet in our own solar system
But we might also decide we want to Marsform Mars. This is Chris McKay’s interesting idea. By the time we understand Mars thoroughly, probably we have got habitats in space. There is no pressure on the land area of Mars for colonization, you just need to build another habitat if you need a few square kilometer. Even if you need the area of another Earth, you just build lots of Stanford Tori using materials from the asteroid belt. By then habitat construction has got more and more automated for sure.
So if there is life on Mars, and even if it isn’t, you can set the planet going again with these ancient seas, and the ancient life, or proto-life, in those seas. ‘You can give Mars a second chance at life as it were. Just see what happens to them and see what they do and how they evolve and let Mars get into its own cycle.
That is like having an alien planet, it is like having an exoplanet, with life on it, right next door to us, in the same solar system as we are. So that’s another possibility.
Practical side to this, life is our best nanotechnology
You might think, this is all blue sky thinking and we should be much more practical about this. But there is actually a practical side to this as well, if you are one of these people who are hard nosed in the sense that everything has to have a purpose, helping human beings in one way or another, and not just an aesthetic purpose.
So if you think that way, well studying the way that micro-organisms work, especially a different form of life, is like nanotechnology. On Earth, life is our best nanotechnology.
So much of modern technology uses life in one way or another, either micro-organisms, or materials made from plants, or plastics, made from oil which comes indirectly from living organisms, and products of coal and so on.
Without life, a huge amount of what we surround ourselves in our daily life would be gone. The plastic cases of our computers even. There would be very little left of our technology if you were to remove the products of life.
So if you get the opportunity to look at alternative forms of life, maybe based on something different from DNA, or life that has explored different avenues, maybe because of the harsh cosmic radiation, or the UV radiation or whatever, this is like a whole new nanotechnology. It is also like a whole new dimension in biology. Instead of having one dimension, everything based on DNA, you have this other dimension of whatever this other form of life is.
That is, if we are lucky enough, and I would say we are very lucky if we find an alternative form of life on Mars that has a different basis from Earth life. The colonists might say, “Oh dear, this means we can’t colonize Mars”. But I would say we should celebrate this and say what a wonderful thing it is, if that happens. I am quite passionate about that.
No apologies for future thinking
A lot of people say I look too far ahead into the future. I tend to think not just centuries but thousands, and millions of years into the future and try to think what is going to happen then. But I think it is quite a good idea to have someone who holds this point of view. So I am not going to apologise for doing this. That is the way I tend to think, that’s my inclination, personality but I think it is quite good to have someone who thinks like that, to present this point of view, and then you can start thinking about these ideas and see what merit they have.
Martian exports – wild idea, to use orbital airships on Mars
Anyway to get back to the situation where you have your colonists, but they are robo colonists on the surface of Mars, and you have plants growing on the surface of Mars and produce, and you want to get return it into orbit, I just want to mention another wild idea – if you don’t mind another wild idea of mine.
The idea itself is not mine, originally, just the idea of applying it to Mars. This is the orbital airship. You could be excused for not knowing about it but this is the ingenious idea of JP Aerospace. Most of it has been done by kickstarter projects. They were originally funded by the US military until it stepped out of the project.
Their idea was – ordinary airships on the Earth can travel up to about 30 km above the atmosphere. Then once you get up there the idea is to build a floating platform. You might think the air there is so very thin, how could you possibly build a floating platform? But if you think like that, what you are forgetting is that it doesn’t matter how thin the gas is that you use for lifting. What matters is if it is a lighter gas than the atmosphere it is floating in.
You can use thin materials because there are no strong winds because the air is so thin, winds in a near vacuum, like the surface of Mars. So you can have huge airships.
In these floating platforms the almost vacuum of hydrogen or helium would float in the almost vacuum of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. It’s the same level that weather balloons rise to and they float just fine in the high atmosphere.
The higher altitude airships could be made of hydrogen, though I think JP Aerospace plan to use helium – hydrogen is actually used for airships by flying enthusiasts in Europe and can be as safe as Helium if well designed, with a Faraday cage type covering to deal with lightning hazard. It’s called “Gas ballooning” – if you search for “hydrogen balloon” you get lots of pages about the Hindenberg disaster, but if you search for “Gas ballooning” you can find out about modern hydrogen balloons. Wikipedia article on Gas balooons
So then you could build orbital platforms, where you dock when you go up from Earth, in your airship.
Then you have a different type of airship only designed to fly up there. They can never come down to the surface because they are too fragile for the surface. Obviously there are safety issues, but it is not hard to design some way you can be safe if something does happen to this airship, parachutes and so on.
This is an artist’s impression of one of these orbital airships.
They are seriously thinking about building this. If their kickstarters work and they do go through with their plans, perhaps we might some day see this happening.
There are lots of technical difficulties as you can imagine still to be dealt with.
So, it is a rather wild idea but doesn’t seem to be absolutely wrong with it. To get into orbit, the idea is that these orbital airships would simply start accelerating gradually faster and faster.
It could use an ion thruster, in the near vacuum up there, very much like a spaceship. Simply, gently getting faster and faster, without any massive thrusting, it would accelerate until it reaches orbital velocity and then it would be in orbit.
In a bit more detail, the airship would first rise to a higher altitude (perhaps 60 km) to reduce drag, and then start accelerating faster and faster. As it approaches orbital velocity, its weight downwards decreases (to zero) so with a combination of buoyancy and speed, it continues to rise higher and higher.
It counteracts issues of drag as it gets faster by continually moving to higher altitudes. Presumably it has to go supersonic and then hypersonic at some point, but by then the air would be so thin it wouldn’t matter. After all, technically, the ISS is travelling at hypersonic speeds (7.66 km/second.) in an ultra thin near vacuum (sound can be transmitted even in interplanetary and interstellar space, in ultra low frequency sounds well below human hearing)
So, my wild idea is to take this JP Aerospace idea, and instead of going into orbit from Earth you go into orbit from Mars. There you don’t need two types of airship since the atmosphere on the surface of Mars is already as thin as it would be at 30 km up in the atmosphere. It needs to be raised a bit above the surface of Mars for safety, and fly it up into orbit whenever the dust storm season approaches.This lets you get it into orbit very cheaply. JP Aerospace talk about a dollar per tonne per mile of ascent for the Earth
On Mars of course you would use hydrogen for the lifting gas. And as the atmosphere of Mars is made of the dense gas CO2, hydrogen would be a stronger lifting gas than for Earth, so the airships would be smaller.
I will just leave you with that idea, an intriguing idea. In one way or another if we want to find a way to get materials from the surface of Mars into orbit, seems likely that means will be found to do it.
Need for legislation
We already have legislation to protect our solar system in the form of the Outer Space Treaty.
I would suggest that until we know what to do, we do need a fair bit of legislation in space. Imagine if there was a war in space. Also, firing a gun inside a habitat is an obvious disaster. There is going to be a lot of legislation in space, but you want it to be the minimum.
This legislation may seem restrictive to prospective colonists, but helps to preserve the freedom of those who wish to enjoy a pristine Mars, and benefit from it. We have some legislation already with the Outer Space Treaty which prevents “harmful contamination” of Mars. But surely this will get extended in many ways as space colonization progresses.
I think personally, that if Mars proves to be biologically interesting, one of the laws surely is going to be that human beings can’t set foot on the surface of Mars until it is absolutely proved that they can do it in a biologically reversible way. Which may be possible, self healing spacesuits, self healing spacecraft, using some technology we can’t imagine. Either they need to prove they can do it in a biologically reversible way, or else it needs to be shown that it doesn’t matter that the do it and it doesn’t matter that we introduce life to Mars.
I think we need one or other of those two things before humans can be permitted to land on the surface of Mars.
What I just said may seem close to the way that the Outer Space Treaty is interpreted, but it is not quite the same. The treaty is usually interpreted as regulation to keep Mars clean during the preliminary exploration period. But perhaps we may decide that it should be kept clean of Earth life indefinitely until we find out more about it and make a decision whether to colonize, Mars form, terraform, or keep it pristine just as it is now.
Whatever the rules about biological contamination, you will be able to do whatever you like on the surface of Mars with your telerobots. You can run around on the surface of Mars with your telerobots to your heart’s content, so long as you can keep your telerobots sufficiently clean of microbes.
I think that is actually a wonderful prospect for the future. In a way it is tantalizing, continually orbiting around Mars and you can never land on it in person. But in a way it is a bit like an unclimbed mountain.
There are some mountains in Bhutan and the peaks of these mountains have never been climbed by a human being. With the current legislation in Bhutan, you are not permitted to do mountaineering there at all.
This is possibly the highest unclimbed mountain in the world Gangkhar Puensum with an elevation of 7,570 m. All mountaineering is prohibited in Bhutan since 2004 out of respect for local religious beliefs
Their highest mountains are I think probably the highest mountains on the Earth that have never been climbed by a human being and possibly never will be. I think there is something poetic about that, there is something rather beautiful about that.
It shows respect for life, and it shows that human beings are not everything in this universe. So I think there is something rather wonderful about that, if that is how it turns out, that we do keep Mars pristine. But I think this is completely open to the future.
Are you reading this 20 or 50 years from now?
I’m just looking forward into the future, and I have seen plenty enough videos on Tomorrow’s World, this is a program we had in Britain, looking into the future, 20 years ago, and we look back at them and sometimes they are very funny.
If people look back and read this article maybe twenty years from now or fifty years from now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these ideas seem silly. But we can only do the best we can and look forward into the future, so I’ve done the best I can.
It is an interesting prospect even if some of the things don’t turn out as you imagine. You can’t be perfectly right with everything.
Please correct my mistakes in these articles
You can see from my bio, I’m a mathematician by training, and I’ve just been interested in this all my life, since a child, since before the Apollo 11 landing, and I’ve read up a lot over the decades on these subjects. As a mathematician I am not put off by mathematics in the papers.
But I am well aware I am not an expert and when I talk about these various subjects I may very well have made mistakes. So if any of you reading this, if you are expert in any of this, and there is anything however minor which is incorrect, say so in the comments. I am under no illusion that I have any tendency to get everything right, and am please to be corrected. So don’t hesitate to correct me.
These articles can still be edited, so I can correct any mistakes immediately if you point them out to me.
If anyone has any comments or any questions, or anything you would like me to give in future articles or videos do let me know.
The other articles in this series are
This article is a lightly edited transcript of the video presentation from my youtube channel
You can watch the rest of the videos for this series here: Many reasons not to live on Mars, great place to explore
For a shorter treatment of the subject of these articles, see : Ten reasons NOT to live on Mars – great place to explore.
For more about the possibility of life on Mars and other relaed topics: Might there be Microbes on the Surface of Mars? , How Valuable is Pristine Mars for Humanity – Opinion Piece? and other articles in my column.