The suggestion that humans will soon set up bustling, long-lasting colonies on Mars is something many of us take for granted. What this lofty vision fails to appreciate, however, are the monumental challenges awaiting colonists
The Red Planet is a cold, dead place, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The paltry amount of air that does exist on Mars is primarily composed of noxious carbon dioxide, which does little to protect the surface from the Sun’s harmful rays. Air pressure on Mars is very low; at 600 Pascals, it’s only about 0.6 percent that of Earth. You might as well be exposed to the vacuum of space, resulting in a severe form of the bends—including ruptured lungs, dangerously swollen skin and body tissue, and ultimately death. The thin atmosphere also means that heat cannot be retained at the surface. The average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping as low as -195 degrees F (-126 degrees C). By contrast, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok Station in Antarctica, at -128 degrees F (-89 degrees C) on June 23, 1982. Once temperatures get below the -40 degrees F/C mark, people who aren’t properly dressed for the occasion can expect hypothermia to set in within about five to seven minutes.
Yet despite these and a plethora of other issues, there’s this popular idea floating around that we’ll soon be able to set up colonies on Mars with ease. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is projecting colonies on Mars as early as the 2050s, while astrobiologist Lewis Darnell, a professor at the University of Westminster, has offered a more modest estimate, saying it’ll be about 50 to 100 years before “substantial numbers of people have moved to Mars to live in self-sustaining towns.” The United Arab Emirates is aiming to build a Martian city of 600,000 occupants by 2117, in one of the more ambitious visions of the future.
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