Sunday, February 2, 2014

Planning my invasion of Mars

So, I want to write a story set on Mars. First, I had to essentially, plan how I would colonize Mars. So here are my rambling Mars colonization notes in case anyone is interested.

Let’s say that the Mars One mission was successful for the first couple of crew missions. I’d say they chose the Terby Crater on the northern edge of the Hellas Planitia Basin, but tech has moved forward since then. In particular genetic engineering takes a few leaps forward with the new gene mapping, data crunching and bio technology available. So, we have a new strategy, a new mission, with a different sort of goal. Long term survival of Earth life on Mars. 

Yes, that was the same goal of Mars One, but I have a different version of long term. Not just the lifetime of the colonists and their children restricted to little habitats and occasional careful trips outside in pressure suits, but actual life adapted to live on Mars as if it belonged there. Even if they lose touch with Earth forever, after a few years to get established, the people on Mars should be able to continue on their own, and thrive, and their children and grandchildren.

First, cyanobacteria are dropped into the Martian atmosphere, in huge quantities by probes, in an effort to do a partial, long term terraforming, just to convert C02 to O2, in order to improve the oxygen content of the air slowly over time. The existing probes should register as the oxygen level rises incrementally, indicating marginal success, and letting us know to go ahead with the next step. 

Cyanobacteria and slightly genetically modified lichens (just to make them grow faster) would be used for oxygen, and food. Habitats built using 3D printing style technology and little AI driven rock tunnelers and general worker bots, with a sort of hive mind. They build like an ant colony, only occasionally needing instruction from the “queen” on earth at mission control. They could all land in a single transport, like a large rover, but they'd be multiple and semi-autonomous, and possibly self-replicating if they can find the materials on Mars to do that, with pre-programmed missions, and the ability to give them new instructions whenever needed, either from Earth, or the colonists themselves.

Maybe a large rock eating machine, or a fair number of them could be created by a combo of 3D printing and parts from earth and worker ants. The machine would crush rock, extract essential minerals, release useful gases, to work on improving warmth and air pressure over time, and provide raw materials for building. That might be a good idea, but I'm not sure how feasible that would be.

The worker ant machines land near the Baetis Mensa in the Ophir Chasma, the northernmost canyon of the Valles Marineras Canyon System, in the lowest spot right near the equator of Mars. The air density in the bottom of the canyon is twice what it is at 0 level, and it actually gets up to a pleasant 70 degrees Farenheit in that part of Mars in the summer, and only down to the equivalent of a cold day in Point Barrow in winter. The bots capture and concentrate solar radiation and solar power to smelt the hematite ore that's all over that valley into steel, and heat the sulfite rocks to release water, and use the sulfur and other native materials to make batteries. The worker ants would create a honeycomb of naturally radiation resistant, airtight caves, with one goal being to seek underground water sources and the other to create living and growing spaces for people and plants. More than just the lichen and bacteria could grow inside the shelters, but only the hardiest high altitude edible plants would make sense. A steel reinforced concrete large scale habitat would be built merging into the side of the cliff, and extending out from it with 3D printing tech and local materials. 

The moment a decent supply of underground water, a major goal of the little ant bots, is located, much of the water is split into O2 and H2 for backup fuel and oxygen.  Most tech is solar powered, with long battery backups, lithium/sulfur batteries made from local materials can be built as needed in large quantities. Supply the lithium from Earth to build a few hundred of those suckers, and hope to find a lithium source by the time you run out. If not, have to have Earth send more with the next mission. Eventually, you gotta find a local source, or modify the way you store power.

Water extracted is stored in multiple redundant areas, as is oxygen and hydrogen separately. The worker ants plant, tend and encourage lichen growth wherever they go. Large sealed tanks of cyanobacteria generate most of the oxygen. Light is brought in for them through a series of reflectors and clear panes.
Caves are completely lined and filled with lichen on any unused surface providing natural oxygen, and food supply. All lighting systems simulate sunlight for the plants, or reflect sunlight in through clear panels, or both. Entire large sections of the caves are specifically for sheltered concentrated growth of the oxygen producing life forms, to produce enough for high altitude adapted humans to live in the habitats.

Entire Valles Marineras would eventually be seeded by the little bots with edible lichen and cyanobacteria, which can absorb water in the early mornings when the ice condenses. A thin roof of solar sheeting stretched across small portions of the valley by the human habitat help concentrate the oxygen and atmosphere as well as collect power. They are designed to stretch, move, flap, and give with the wind, but not tear, and channel dust and debris to hollow iron and concrete poles, which transfer the power down to batteries. Dust storms just make the shelter stronger. Over time, more and more of the valley will get a bit of a blanket roof. Solar sheeting is made from local materials, with only essential rare minerals supplied from earth (not sure how to make this, challenging, but important and doable, I think.) Little worker ant probes or the big rock and dirt eater continually search for Martian sources for all minerals needed.

This is all relatively standard Mars settling kind of strategy. The twist in this is genetically engineered people. There are massive ethical and practical questions that would undoubtedly be part of accomplishing that, but I'm totally going to bypass those (coward, I know,) and assume they got slugged out over the next two decades. First mission in 2033, second in 2035, third in 2037. Six pregnant women and two men on every mission.The people are all chosen for genetic diversity and high altitude adaptability, as well as the usual expertise and physical health criteria. The children are genetically modified embyos. By the time the third mission lands, the six first mission children would be school age.

The genetic fathers of the children were sperm donors from Peru, Tibet, Nepal, and other high, cold places of earth, the Andes Mountains, the Kunlun, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, the Tian Shan, the Karakoram, the Pamir, the Saint Elias, and the Caucasus. The men who travel with them are of the same high altitude, cold and thin air tolerant genetic stock. The transport ships and Mars habitats themselves have atmospheric pressure roughly equivalent to 3 miles high on earth, like a Peruvian or Tibetan village. The men are there to help when all the women are very pregnant or nursing tiny infants, and on the assumption that more children will follow after they land, through natural means and slight modifications of the embryos conceived so that they match the new Martian children. At least one gifted genetic engineer would travel with each mission.

The children would be modified as little as possible, but the minor modifications produce huge differences in physiology. Their lung capacity, already the best humanity has to offer, would be expanded to four times any earth human’s, and production of hemoglobin proportionately accelerated to allow maximum absorption of available oxygen from thin atmospheres, along with extensive capillary systems, and rapid respiration rates, a high tolerance for carbon dioxide, and blood pressure that is far below dangerous levels for a human, low enough to balance against a far lower air pressure externally. 

Their skin would be the only obvious external difference; hair follicles modified to produce scales which provide double the protection from exposure to radiation, help with the low air pressure, plus they would seal in water to minimize dehydration. A layer of fat just under the skin insulates them from the cold (about double the thickness of the average Eskimo) and also makes them less susceptible to radiation. One last important modification would be a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes from the thin, cold atmosphere, dehydration and dust.

Special community nursery rooms for the babies would have been built on the outer edges of the colony habitat. The lichen grow in them and oxygen is supplemented, but the rooms are not pressurized. Mothers must put on pressurized suits and pass through airlocks to tend to their littles. The babies have to be born in specially prepared rooms. One or two moms stay with the kids awake at all times in case the kids need anything, since it would take too long to get to them through the airlock in an emergency. All the moms take turns.

Similarly genetically modified pregnant Peruvian chinchillas travel with them. Their babies thrive on a diet of lichen and require very little air. Their flesh provides much needed protein and their skins and fur provide warmly insulated clothing for the growing children.

The chinchillas and the children alike need only a bit of extra oxygen to survive comfortably in Martian air at the bottom of a chasma. Large outdoor structures are built that hold in some of the extra oxygen the lichen and algae provide, concentrating it on the valley floor, so, after a few years, the children and critters can roam around outside a bit. They should bring oxygen with them, just in case.

As the bacteria seeded in the atmosphere continues to build the oxygen levels globally, the children will need less and less supplemental oxygen and be able to roam further from the habitats safely. They won't be able to climb the walls of the chasm, though, because the air at the top is half the air pressure of what's on the bottom. Fortunately, that chasma is hundreds of miles long, giving them lots of room to expand over time. The earth humans will always be confined to the habitats or pressurized suits, but their descendants will be adapted to large sections of their new world. With a pressurized transport vehicle, they could travel to the other large depressions on the Mars surface several generations down the road when they feel the need for more space.

Now, a lot of folks, who are into this sort of thing, are probably wondering why I didn't think of heating the polar ice caps, particularly the southern one. Currently, we could heat the southern polar ice caps of Mars with reflective mirrors and produce a thicker atmosphere that would warm the planet and increase the water content of the air. However, we cannot currently simulate the magnetic field of a planet that holds that air in. Heating the solar ice caps to terraform Mars would only accelerate the loss of the last remaining free C02 and water on that planet, leaving our new race of people stuck on a dying planet.

When we gain the knowledge needed to give Mars a magnetic field, or learn some other way to hold the air in all over the planet, the children of Mars, who were otherwise restricted to just the deep valleys where the air pressure is twice that of the neutral surface, will be delighted to have the highlands opened up to them, vastly expanding the area of the planet that they can comfortably live in, and the earth humans can move into the valleys and lowlands where the air will be dense and oxygen rich enough for the most high altitude adaptable of them.

Instead of forcing Mars to adapt to become completely Earth-like, we would adapt the planet a little, and adapt ourselves a little, and meet in the middle.

That's how I would do it anyway,