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Populating Mars: How Big of a Mission for Astrobiologists

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Human’s unquenchable thirst to know the unknown has made it possible to undergo a continual journey towards the advancement of science and technology utilizing which we have not only explored the earth, we have set our footprint on the moon. However, unlike any otherworldly desire, curiosity does not reduce with work progress, rather the closer you go to something, the more enthusiasm grows to expand the reach. As a result, when humans could explore the moon, their focus shifted to mars. Now scientists are keen to reach mars and companies like SpaceX are hoping to relocate humans on it. So how would mars be like a living planet? Could life really exist on mars? Being the closest planet to earth, what benefit can we gain from it?

From the evidence of evolution, we know that life begins from microorganisms. It takes billion years of evolution for single-cell organisms to turn into multicellular organisms and thousands of billion years later humans evolved on this planet. So, astrobiologists started to look for microorganisms on Mars. The cold climate and lack of continental drift in Mars gave researchers the hope that it was very much possible to live exist on mars. However, to date, no conclusive proof has yet been obtained that can show life to live on it. Therefore, humanity is kind of stuck on earth till now although we can apparently stretch it to mars. This is what scientists are now looking forward to.

To colonize humans on mars, we will have to ensure proper food, water, Oxygen supply as well as have to construct buildings and other structures. Benjamin Lehner, a Ph.D. student at the Delft University of Technology, worked with this problem and gave a hypothetical solution to this in his Ph.D. thesis. He not only provided an abstract idea but also designed prototypes, experimented with them in the laboratory, and succeeded.


He used Shewanella oneidensis, a facultative bacterium (can survive with or without oxygen), has the capability to reduce metal ions. Here a point to mention is that 5 to 14% of the regolith or the soil of mars is iron oxide. This mentioned bacteria, as it can survive without Oxygen, is capable of living in the condition of mars and it can reduce the irons from the mars regolith. Later this extracted iron can easily be collected using a magnet which can later be inserted into a 3D printer to produce whatever we need to. He also estimated that in this way, it is possible to produce 350kg of iron per year which far exceeds the capacity of any other existing rockets of NASA or SpaceX.


So that solves the puzzle of heavy constructions. But how to manage Oxygen, food, and other essential stuff? The same bacteria that reduced iron from iron oxide, can actually extract necessary materials such as O2, CO2, H2, CH4, etc. This involves a process called In Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU where the mars regolith and Shewanella oneidensis are put into a rover from which the bacteria will do their job. To perform the bacteria even better, He proposed to introduce some microalgae along with the bacteria. These microalgae can produce nutrients, oxygen, and other substances that can help the bacteria to thrive. On top of that, this combination of algae and bacteria would produce a residual waste that will somewhat function like compost, which can promote farming on Mars. Hence when we can initiate farming on Mars, fruits and vegetables can be cultivated there giving us the food source. And remember the 3D printer we talked about to build our constructions? We would send it on this rover too. He showed a prototype of a bio-ink where the bacteria will work like a bioreactor. The interesting point to add here is that we do not need any special rover to carry out his plan. It requires no extra facility than the existing rovers which are already being used. Only this rover will contain one extra expandable drill to drill the soil and a shovel to collect the materials afterward. Not to mention the rovers are solar-powered so they can work during the daytime, which is nearly 24 hours on Mars.


Schematic diagram of the rover


All these missions might seem like a science fiction story but the truth is these are scientific concepts built upon flawless theoretical aspects. Nevertheless, it is never an easy job to translate the abstract idea into reality. But as the human has progressed so much with time in terms of astronomy, this might not take too long to experiment these ideas on the moon and then on mars. If a successful outcome comes, who knows how close are we to populate mars, perhaps a time may come when humans will travel back and forth from Earth to Mars just like we do it from Bangladesh to the USA.


Reference:

  1. Ph.D. thesis of Benjamin Lehner.

  2. Youtube video summing up the thesis.

  3. Bringing Mars To The Iron Age – NASA


Muhammad Shafiul Alam Mondal
University of Dhaka

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