Sorry, Colonizing Mars is Still a Pipe Dream

Even though you responded to the casting call, you probably won't become a reality star on Mars.

Photo Courtesy of Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

In 2012, a Dutch nonprofit led by entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced plans to send four citizen astronauts to colonize Mars in 2023. The motivation behind the project was later revealed to have little to do with the pursuit of science; instead, the organization—known as Mars One—plans to film the whole thing, turning the far-flung mission into a reality TV show.

The call for applications began in 2013. No previous intergalactic experience was necessary, Mars One said: Applicants just needed to be over the age of 18 and comfortable with the notion of spending the rest of their lives on a different planet. In the first two weeks, more than 78,000 people applied for the one-way trip into space; that number now tops 200,000. Mars One hopes to pick between 28 to 40 candidates by the year 2015 and train them for the final mission. The organization also needs to raise around $6 billion in funding to pull the whole thing off.

So, just how scientifically sound is sending four normal people, with no scientific background, to another planet in the hope of making it habitable for future generations? Not very, according to a team of MIT engineering students. The group made a detailed simulation of the Mars One settlement to assess the mission’s feasibility. Their results, published last month, show that it will be virtually impossible for humans to survive on Mars with current technology.


“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible,” said Olivier de Weck, MIT professor of aeronautics and engineering systems. “But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.”

The researchers began by looking at each component outlined in Mars One’s plan, from living conditions and life-support systems to logistics and emergency procedures in case of fire. The first problem is food. Mars One plans to build a series of capsule-like habitats to house the settlers, using solar panels to supply electricity and extracting drinking water from the soil with an irrigation system. Using a typical work schedule and metabolic rate of astronauts on the International Space Station, the study estimated that a settler on Mars would have to consume 3,040 calories a day to stay healthy, subsisting on a diet that includes foods like beans, lettuce, peanuts, potatoes, and rice. The researchers found that producing enough of these crops to sustain settlers would require almost four times an area as the one laid one in Mars One’s plan—200 square meters, as opposed to the 50 currently allotted.

Further, if the crop-growing area is part of the settlers’ habitat, as is proposed, the crops would end up producing unsafe levels of oxygen that would need to be combated with a constant supply of nitrogen. This process would require technology that has yet to be developed for use in space. The same goes for water. The Mars One plan is to melt ice for drinking water, but the MIT study found that current technologies that can extract and melt water from soil are not yet ready for use in Mars’ harsh environment. Eventually, the study found, the total atmospheric pressure inside the habitat would drop to unsafe levels, suffocating the first settler within 68 days.

Essentially, colonizing Mars is the kind of thing that requires a lot more preparation. “There are just so many unknowns,” said Sydney Do, one of the graduate students who led the study. “And to give anyone confidence that they’re going to get there and stay alive—there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

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