On Wednesday, February 27th, I participated in a Fireside Chat with Sean McClinton of the Seattle Space Entrepreneurs, in my role as the organizer of the Seattle chapter of The Mars Society. I have been a volunteer for the Mars Society for over 20 years, and we are the world’s largest non-profit focused on the human exploration and settlement of the red planet. Presently we are running a $20,000 contest to design the first human colony on Mars.
[Update: I led a special discussion panel at the 22nd Annual Mars Society Convention where we also covered this list, and encouraged conference attendees to create Mars-related technology startups.]
At both events, I presented this list of ideas of the different technologies that can be developed immediately to help build a human civilization on Mars, and also could form the foundation of a 21st century startup technology company.
For each technology, I provide the key goal of the technology as it relates to Mars settlement and a core problem in developing it.
In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)
Goal: create methane-based fuels from CO2 and Water, using the Sabatier Reaction with indigenous martian air & water.
Problem: create a miniaturized extraction & conversion hardware solution, or one that can be massively upscaled to power a martian city.
Advanced Materials Production
Goal: Use indigenous Martian resources to create textiles, building materials, electronics components, etc.
Problem: new miniaturized equipment for materials processing, as well as new techniques would need to be invented and perfected.
Synthetic Mars Dirt
Goal: create lots of this – TONS will be needed on Earth for various projects and testing methods. Problem: we know the chemical compositions but adding accurate perchlorates might be expensive or tricky to do.
3-D Printing for Mars
Goal: print out bases, bricks, parts, food!, etc using indigenous materials, or (less desirable) lightweight feedstock shipped from Earth.
Problem: Super-reliable 3-D printers that can self replicate with appropriate feedstocks.
Goal: grow food crops with processed Martian soil.
Problem: how can you easily remove perchlorates and add nutrients? Maybe pair up fish as protein source and to make fertilizer… Also how do you easily store food and recycle water from food waste?
Closed-Loop Life Support
Goal: a life support system that can replenish itself (likely using plants) and can work for years at a time without maintenance.
Problem: never been demonstrated! We’re actually pretty far from this. Biosphere 2 tried this and was a disaster.
Goal: radiation hardened electronics that are newer than the 1970s/80s/90s. Raspberry Pi!
Problem: the lead times to do this are typically very long and it’s also very expensive. How can we make it easier.
Goal: create offroad personal transportation that is electric or methane fuel powered. How about an all-terrain Segway for astronauts to use while on EVA?
Problem: these need to be designed and tested on Earth before they are sent to (or 3-D printed on) Mars.
Goal: produce a drink closely resembling a traditional cup of Joe. Anybody want to found the Starbucks of Mars and make a few billion?
Problem: how do you grow the coffee beans and/or synthesize the constituents of GOOD coffee on Mars.
Goal: doing this on a small/large scale
Problem: how do you fit a chemistry lab on a rocket but also scale up to produce large amounts of fuel, air, drinking water, etc. Removing Perchlorates would be key as well.
Accredited Education with a Mars Focus
Goal: Create a certification training problem to teach all the skills needed to settle Mars: astronautics, materials tech, physics, chemistry, orbital mechanics.
Problem: This may be the easiest technology to develop!
Goal: create batteries able to handle different thermal environments.
Problem: One battery fire would kill the mission.
Dust Control with Air Scrubbers
Goal: how do you keep all the dust out of everything?
Problem: Mars dust is so small it is microscopic in some cases. How do you design a system that keeps everything clean while astronauts are repeatedly going on EVA and re-using their (very) dirty suits?
Goal: Shielding everything – magnetic fields to do this may be a promising solution. Has been lab-tested.
Problem: The exact amount of radiation needed to shield is unknown. The Mars 2020 rover may inform this.
Martian Concrete from Indigenous Materials
Goal: how can you easily create this, for various construction needs? One solution: Pycrete (86% water ice and 16% sawdust) has been used successfully on Earth and is very durable.
Problem: Nobody has every demonstrated this!
Dealing with 38% Earth Gravity
Goal: limit the fatigue and wear/tear on our bodies. How do you simulate it, what experiments can you run? How do bones develop/degrade? What about plants’ growth and life cycle?
Problem: so much needs to be done on this and nobody has done much.
Flight on Mars
Goal: Flying on mars is easier because of the lower gravity. Create Jetpacks, flying platforms, drones. The Mars Helicopter on the 2020 rover will hopefully demonstrate this for the first time.
Problem: little/no atmosphere requires some out of the box thinking! Traditional wing designs won’t work.
Goal: how do you sort through all the data coming back, not just photos but biomedical, habitat readouts, etc.
Problem: it’s a lot of data and we only have the NASA Deep Space Network as our “internet connection” for the moment.
Mars Bootcamp on Earth / Mars Analog Research
Goal: create high-fidelity simulations on Earth to train prospective astronauts. The Mars Society has gotten this going with our analog bases in the Arctic and Utah, but much more is needed.
Problem: Analog bases are expensive and require ongoing maintenance, and the best Mars analog environments are in places like the north pole or the middle of the desert, making logistics expensive and difficult.
Staying Fit in 38% Gravity
Goal: how best to stay healthy long-term in Mars gravity, and how to prepare Martians to re-acclimate to Earth’s gravity.
Problem: nobody has worked on this! How do you test it?
So pick any one of these twenty technologies, and start a business around it. Future martians will thank you, and you might even become rich in the process… because all of these technologies will have applications back on Earth.
Photos credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech and Universe Today.