Life on Mars? There definitely will be one day…

As the space race sets Mars in its sights, Tony Kendle from the Eden Project examines when it might happen – and who's going to take us there

Is there, or was there once, life on Mars? We don’t know for sure, but we can be sure that one day there will be.

Technologists in NASA and some independents, including those led by Richard Branson and the billionaire Elon Musk, have all been making serious plans for a Mars mission. Musk is so confident of progress that he has said that he plans to retire on the red planet.

Musk has said that the first cargo and passenger ships could launch in 2024 and a million of us could have moved to live on Mars by as early as 2060. But since this transition will be mostly a private sector enterprise you may need to pay huge amounts for the ticket or be classed as essential support. Billionaires first, proctologists and Viagra salesmen second, I guess.


But how feasible is it to achieve a permanent settlement on Mars?

Studies have shown that the critical elements needed for our form of life to survive (carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen) are present in the Martian atmosphere. There are also signs that there plenty of water on the planet too. Essential minerals, like phosphorus, are certainly present in the rocks. Putting these together we have the key chemical building blocks needed for the manufacture of foods, fuels and other essentials for life support.

A million of us could have moved to live on Mars by as early as 2060

The atmosphere is not breathable by humans, nor are the dust storms or radiation easily survivable, so the first colonists would need to live in domes with life support systems within which they create an environment that will not kill them.

Nevertheless, a settlement on Mars in many ways is more feasible than a settlement on the moon, since much of what we need is already there. All that we would need to introduce would be the technology, plants and the bacteria, needed to synthesise materials from these elements.

The chief technologists needed to do the work of making life possible, will probably be bacteria, who for millions of years have been inventing and running our life support systems on Earth (and, we should remember, they invented plants and humans like Musk and I too).

In recognition of their importance, NASA recently has become a leader in microbial research, developing new technology, like fuel cells that use bacteria to convert sewage to electricity and clean water, with the aim of creating zero waste space missions.

However, this may not be quite the right approach as oddly one of the limiting factors to life on Mars could be a shortage of waste – in particular the organic matter that is essential for soil building. This lack will limit the rate of expansion until the colony has accumulated enough plants, and enough human waste, including dead bodies, to create the necessary soil for establishing agriculture and a wider ecology.

Until that time, food growing will need to be based on soil-less, hydroponic systems – possible for food but not useful to make Mars more widely habitable and a ‘nice place’ as Musk says he wants to do. So it could be a lack of waste that delays the establishment of the first Trump golf course on Mars.

Life is much more adaptable than anyone believed before

Assuming the needed organic stockpiles are eventually achieved then much becomes possible. At the Eden Project [below] we have shown that in just a few years, it is feasible to make functioning soil from a mix of sterile rock and organic matter suitable to grow a huge diversity of the world’s plants.

Amongst its research programmes NASA have also sponsored greenhouse studies to determine which plants may be most successful in supporting a colony of pioneers. The challenge for the plants will not be the atmosphere, it will suit them more than it will suit us, but they will be challenged by the low gravity and radiation, the storms and the cold.

Eden Project
Could the Eden Project be replicated on Mars?

Space researchers have been investigating how plants react to low gravity and it surprised everyone to discover that many plants hardly seem to notice, or at least were able to change the way they grow to adapt easily.

There were two important lessons from this discovery, firstly that life is much more adaptable than anyone believed before, which is a message of hope for us all in the face of climate change. Whatever we throw at it, life is likely to find creative solutions. On a more practical level it means that agriculture on Mars really is feasible.


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A big challenge remains the climate – being further from the Sun than the Earth is, Mars is a cold planet and the proposed solution to this is where Musk’s ideas take a more disturbing turn.

In an interview he mooted two ways of warming up the planet – the ‘slow method’ of pumping even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will unfortunately also make it less suitable for us to breathe and the ‘quick method’ of detonating thermonuclear bombs at the poles of the planet, although how this will work is not entirely clear.

It was this latter suggestion that prompted the interviewer, Stephen Colbert to compare Musk with Lex Luther: “This sounds like something a super villain would do”.

Like Colbert, I can’t help but also be disturbed by the idea that Silicon Valley companies may start researching nuclear technology and pondering on how to manipulate the climate, even of another planet.


The other major limitation to Musk’s ambition of making Mars ‘a nice place to live’ is that without a magnetic field as we have on Earth, the thin atmosphere is constantly being lost and getting thinner all the time. Scientists expect this to be the most difficult problem to resolve if the aim is to be able to step out of the domes and enjoy the planet.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft is another digital billionaire who has invested in a private space technology through a company called SpaceShipOne. Google too has an offshoot company, Planetary Ventures that has recently leased an unused NASA facility to undertake research into space technology  Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has also launched a company called Blue Origins to promote space travel and exploration.

Nations that have declared Mars missions include: the USA, Russia, China and North Korea. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost alone among the digital aristocracy, Mark Zuckerberg has not declared a move into space colonisation, preferring virtual reality tours of the planet to the real journey, so it may yet be some time before Facebook becomes Spacebook. But he is not ignoring space altogether, he does have plans to launch satellites to expand internet and Facebook access.

Other than private companies, nations that have declared an intent to develop Mars missions include: the USA, Russia, China and North Korea. What could possibly go wrong with that mix?

Given the obvious scope for mayhem of all sorts it is no surprise that lawyers too see space exploration as their own next great frontier. Space lawyers are a profession that is growing fast, they have their own blog sites and operate from several new research centres around the world including the London institute for Space Policy and Law.


There is one not-for-profit space exploration venture, called Mars One based in the Netherlands. It plans to offer places for a trip at a price affordable by anyone, with the additional funds needed to be raised by donations and by commercial spin offs such as merchandising and even, they suggest, reality TV shows. Imagine Mars Celebrity Bake-Off. Will the cakes rise in the Martian atmosphere? Or will the Martian Apprentices succeed in selling burgers to billionaires?

Of all the protagonists the Mars One team seem most motivated by an altruistic interest in promoting the next ‘giant leap’ for humanity, and have said they hope and believe that a mission will not only aid science but also will inspire and help bring humanity together.

When Mars One put out a call for expressions of interest, they received over 165,0000 applicants

The timeframe they are aiming for is only 2024 – astonishingly close. When Mars One put out a call for expressions of interest, they received over 165,0000 applicants.

In 2001 the first private individual space tourist Dennis Tito is believed to have paid a remarkable $18 million for an eight day stay on the International Space Station.

Strangely, some of the aspiring pioneers seem most motivated by fear of what will happen to the Earth and see Mars as our collective emergency exit.

Elon Musk has stated that he believes that the risk of disasters destroying the Earth are so high that this is a key motivation to leave. The risks he fears range from super volcanos to asteroid strikes and disease pandemics, he argues  that it is irresponsible not to have another planet on standby to give life a ‘backup’, although in more inspirational and upbeat mode he has also said he sees moving to a multi-planet species is a way to make the future ‘more exciting and better than the past’.

Recently, Stephen Hawking also made a similar announcement that he believes that the human race has just 100 years to move on from Earth because of the inevitability of a major disaster or health crisis.


So it may be risky to stay, but what are the risks of going?

An obvious risk is technology failure in flight. Musk’s company SpaceX has had one rocket explosion at take-off, destroying a satellite partly funded by Mark Zuckerberg. Virgin Galactic has also had one rocket explode, killing a pilot, the first known death of the next generation space race.

Technology failure on the colony is another risk. Dramatic dust storms and these will be a tough test for any life support technology. With the different Silicon Valley companies involved, another question is what computer operating system will become multi-planet as well?

Imagine the scene: “What’s wrong with the life support? Why can’t we breathe?”

“Sorry sir, it’s the Windows 400 control system, its updating, we should be able to breathe again in twenty minutes when the blue circle stops spinning.”

SpaceX plans for a Martian colony
SpaceX recently released their plans for a Martian colony

Less dramatic but more predictable risks come from radiation exposure. With present technology the journey alone will take anything from 150 days to two years, given the risk of solar storms during this time, the journey itself may be enough to provide a lethal radiation dose even before the colonists arrive. And without an ozone layer for protection, living on Mars will continue the radiation exposure.

To be fair, many of the pioneering enterprises and aspiring Martians have openly acknowledged that the first wave of colonisation may be a one way trip only. Some applicants have said they would take the trip even if they could only expect one year of survival.

However, a one way ride to death is not yet a given, researchers are looking at how to get there faster and more safely, and some are now saying we should be more ambitious and that return trips will become feasible as technology advances.


Is mayhem inevitable? Are there any rules that govern what happens when the colonists get there?

The main governance framework that currently applies is the United Nations Outer Space Treaty that aims to promote the peaceful exploration of outer space to the benefit of everyone, it is also expected that the principles of the Law of the Sea will provide an outline legal framework for the development of laws in outer space.

There is no treaty or governance framework that could stand for the rights of this alien life

However is it really plausible that this UN treaty could stop nations like the USA and North Korea from taking their war technology and belligerence with them? And no treaty of governments can totally control the exploits of neo-liberal private interests that have already been known to distort democratic good governance on Earth.

So if they don’t behave, what would happen? Would the UN find billions to send observers and peacekeepers to follow? I can’t help but doubt it.

Ultimately the only governance framework that will have realistic influence will come when the Mars government is established with its own powers of sanction – who will get to form that police force? Virgin or Google? – we shall see.

This raises another ethical issue. If there is any Martian life surviving anywhere it will probably soon be destroyed either by competition from the life forms that we bring with us, through the climate change nuclear experiments, or in the havoc of the first Martian war, or sooner or later buried beneath the Golf courses of Muskopolis and Trumptown. There is no treaty or governance framework that could stand for the rights of this alien life.


Here’s the thing. If you had the chance what would you do? Would you go to the red planet filled with red faced neo liberals and snarling governments or would you stay?

For myself, if given the choice (which I don’t expect to have) between trying to build a new society of havoc on Mars founded by technocrats, proctologists and free market billionaires or staying to rebuild our present planet without them, together with the full diversity of underdogs, refugees and other survivors, I would choose the latter anytime. Even though I suspect that the Martians will soon be firing lasers at us Earthlings and building space walls to stop us from following them.

One reason I would stay, and I know this to be true, is whatever damage we may have done to our home, and however wild things may get, it is within the power of nature and also in the human gift, to heal, restore and regrow rather than just destroy.

We can live in hope because regeneration and rebirth is all around us everywhere, every day, nature is more resilient and creative  than we give credit. And worldwide there are thousands of examples of how, working with nature, people have been able to reverse degradation and leave some corner of this world better than they found it.

In fact I suspect that such repair and refreshment will be much more likely once the Mars colonists have gone, as those left behind will have made a positive choice to make Earth their home and will have even more reason to work to avoid the disasters that others fear.

Sorry Stephen Hawking – go if you want to or if you feel you must, and of course if you do go, we wish you well. But for one reason or another, we aren’t all going to go with you.

Tony Kendle, Eden Project