Answers to Space Questions, Life on Mars

Hey everybody!

I’ve started doing some lackadaisical consulting with a space architecture class at Carnegie Mellon, and am now an ad-hoc Mars adviser and general question. I’m no expert of course, but I can answer some things, pontificate on others, and of course having this sort of creative discourse here allows them to see answers directly from me (instead of through a professor) and gives everyone else who stops by, mostly my grandma, a chance to weigh in on what we’re talking about and ask questions too. Or heck, contribute answers. There may be less pictures here, but I’ll do what I can if I think of something goofy I can attach.

To the questions!

From KwanPo, a query on the general psychological effects of extended isolation for myself, and then future crews on a real Mars exploration mission. In addition, any differences I can readily point out between the habitat I’m living in now, and how it would be if I were actually living on Mars, aside from the difference in gravity.

To start, this could be a HUGE answer if we had the time. I’m cleaning up my masters thesis at the moment and that’s about…165 pages of stuff mostly talking about this and how we would respond to it. You could talk about the psychological effects of isolation for decades! I may actually send a lot of the papers and such I’m looking at to you guys during the course, and if any of you want to get an account on Research Gate, there’s huge amounts of info there as well.

For me personally, the isolation hasn’t gotten to me all that much yet. It’s only been about 5 months at this point, and I’m far from bored. Psychological effects will be enormously compounded when combined with other things; if I were in here but not doing architecture, drawing, learning to cook…just two weeks in the dome doing nothing could be far more devastating than a year of living here but being busy. Isolation is exactly what it sounds like, the removal of yourself from your normal life, support structures, outlets. I mitigate that by keeping in touch with friends (when they remember to write back, the neglectful devils), working on drawing goofy tee shirts, or trying to get ahead in school. Working out will also keep you from getting a bad case of cabin fever. You’re not going anywhere, but your body is moving and can help you release a lot of tension. But by month 9 or 10, I might be wearing my pants on my head and having extremely passionate debates with the wheat grass I’m going to plant in my old hiking boots. That’s the experiment right? Just remember that in this context isolation is paired with confinement, and in a real Mars mission, environmental stressors as well. That compounds things, and the measures I take to feel good here may not be enough if I were living in the arctic or flying to another planet.

The biggest psychological effect of the isolation so far is probably best summed up by…not regret, but a softer version of that. I’ve missed my grandmothers 80th birthday with the entire family getting together, I recently missed my younger brothers wedding as well. I have new family now I’ve never met. My good friends I hadn’t seen for ages while studying in China are still not being seen, the people I love and want to hang out with just didn’t come along. So it’s at times a bit bittersweet, I’m doing a lot of amazing stuff that I really love and hey, once in a lifetime thing, huge opportunity. But I wish I could experience the things I’ve missed while in here, everything has a cost.

Now take that general effect, make it much stronger, and remove the escape I have in being able to walk out that door any time I want. That’s a future Mars crew. You’re gone for closer to 3 years, not one. Once the rocket takes off that’s it, you’re going whether you want to or not, no changing your mind. I get to look out a little window and see Hawai’i, mostly lava but still. On the way to Mars the sun is so bright it’s just black, you’re traveling through ink for 8 months. No weather, save for the possibility the sun will shoot a mass of radiation your way and kill the whole crew, or maybe it’ll rain a single small rock and puncture your pressure vessel. It would be…way more intense, way more stressful, a far greater sacrifice. We’re still trying to understand what the psychological effects would be, and designing to mitigate them is a big part of what I’m working on. Would the trip be easier if you had VR goggles that let you play Elder Scrolls? Will people be less tense about being so far from home if we can simulate weather in the ship to some extent? Is there a base number of people where you would be able to have a supportive social structure of some minimal complexity to keep you sane? Is that 5 other people? 10? The psychological effects of going to Mars, living there, coming back safely…there’s just so many of them, all exacerbated by circumstance, time, environment. Your job as a space architect is going to be making people able to thrive in this kind of environment, not just survive it.

Now! The differences in life here on the mountain and actually on Mars. The big one is going to be the sheer lethality of the place. If I want to go outside I can, in a hazmat suit, and you can hear the wind ruffling the hab fabric at times. Mars has only 1% of our atmospheric pressure, and it’s lethally cold. Looking out the window might still be beautiful, but in a different way. Flowers and tigers are pretty, but one can eat you. There’ll be an ever present knowledge that the only thing keeping you safe is the habitat, and that it’s fragile. I know that mine is a glorified tent and I’m perfectly safe, so I’m lacking some of the stressors that would come with actually being on Mars.

Another would be weather. I can get rain here, but we’ve got a generator. If I even had a hurricane, I’m pretty protected by the landscape around me, and we have a sea-canister that could withstand a dinosaur attach we could hide in. On Mars, a massive issue is that dust. If you don’t have an RTG (little nuclear reactor) then you’ll be needing to keep those solar panels clean, it just gets on them with what tiny breeze there is. It can also get into the habitat, get into you, and it’s far from healthy. Oh, and where I have sun, Mars has a virtually unshielded surface that’s always getting a lot of radiation. A sunny day here is nice, on Mars you have to wonder how many milli-sieverts you’re getting and if that radiation might give you super powers. Or something less awesome. The dust storms are far less dramatic than in the Martian, they can’t do anything to you and you could just walk around in them, but they can last for a LONG time and there’s no sun when they’re around. Back to the habitat with no views, no lights, incredibly isolated for however many weeks or months they’re floating about.

So yeah, the knowledge the environment is always out to get you, from lack of air to over abundance of radiation, and extremely annoying weather that just wants to make you as red as everything else. There could even be periodic Martian attacks, I mean we haven’t gone there yet, who knows.

And from Ana! She’s interested in the amenities that I miss the most, the sorts of things we might be able to include that would benefit people living on actual Mars. This one is also super multi-faceted and a big part of what I’m trying to figure out myself.

A big one is food. I’ve learned to make all sorts of things while I’m here, from ice cream to enchiladas, and having something different and delicious can help break the monotony, which is one of your big enemies here. As far as activities outside of amazing noms, I’ve been living on Oahu for years now, so the tide pools, beach, amazing local food/music…life in a dome is certainly a bit dryer with two 2 minute showers a week and dehydrated everything. I’m not sure how you could ever really replace something like that though.

I would say…wide open space, people in design often underestimate the mental/experiential value of a big area that’s for nothing. Because it can be for anything, even something as seemingly banal as feeling like you’re in a big open space. One of my favorite features of our habitat is that we’ve got a double height living room since we’re in a dome. Tall ceilings rule. It’s also nice to get privacy, not the kind you get from say…going to your room, since if you so much as tap the floor or sneeze or anything everyone in the hab can hear you. I miss having complex areas, places you can get lost in, that have little corners and hidden things. I sometimes think the idea of Asian gardens, with their multiple framed views and nooks hidden everywhere, could be a great starting concept for a habitat. There’s Yuyuan garden in Shanghai, and the place feels wayyyy bigger than it actually is because you’re always moving around in complex ways. Having a space that changes, tricks you, offers you the various typologies of space to feel like you can always go somewhere else for a change, is huge.

Having a hot tub would be really sweet too, just saying. Or a room you can really tear loose in and not worry about damaging things. I swear if you could put a bouncy castle in orbit it wouldn’t be the safest but you could have a ton of fun in there.

And then we’ve got some random questions that just came from everybody. I don’t know all the answers super well, and will try to be a little less long winded about things too, let’s see!

Is there much tectonic activity on Mars?

Not really, though it does seem to be the only other planet in the solar system that has any tectonic activity. Apparently Valles Marineris may in part have been created from tectonic upswelling, and the entire planet is made of two massive plates, as opposed to the bunches of plates that make up Earth. But since the planet is much smaller, and cooler, the activity that goes on is far slower. It just kicks our butts in mountains and canyons due to lower gravity, cheater!

Most of the Valles Marineris were formed through tectonic faulting. So I’ve heard. This thing is wider than the US and can be 5 miles deep in places. Nobody is jumping over this with their motorcycle, looking at you Evel Knievel

How likely are impacts on the Hab? What are the possible scales/weight/forces of an impact? Different in different sites?

It’s safe to say that it’s better than being in space, since even the tiny amount of atmosphere that the planet has can burn up the micro-meteoroids that can cause issues in open space. But it’s still a tiny amount of atmosphere and stuff that would just burn up on Earth is more likely to get you on Mars. That said, the odds of it are just insanely small. It could happen, but really if it does you should go buy a lottery ticket because you’re the luckiest person on two planets. Presuming it doesn’t kill you of course, big rocks can do that. There may be factors that come into play with regards to say…the differences in Earths gravity vs Mars’ and having one planet pull in more asteroids, or Mars being closer to the asteroid belt, factors that you’d need to ask a real expert about, but I still think you’re essentially perfectly safe from any sort of collision. Of course the dinosaurs would disagree, but we watch what…3% of the sky for big rocks? Haven’t been hit yet…so far…but I would say it’s roughly the same as Earth. You’re safer underground, anywhere on the planet is same odds for a strike. An interesting note though is that a habitat can’t move, but a spaceship can. If you’ve got decent local radar your ship can dodge the slower stuff. In a habitat all you can do is cross your fingers.

Ok the odds of this one happening are super small. But it’s still not zero. If it makes you feel any better you wouldn’t feel a thing if it were anywhere near you. Treat it like any other danger on Earth…you probably won’t get hit by a falling piano, but you could. Just have to hope you’re lucky with some things.

How do dust storms affect the temperature and light on the surface?

Since the atmosphere holds very little heat, most of the warmth you’ll get on Mars comes directly from the sun or very nice hugs from the other crew members. A dust storm will likely lower the temperature, though I’m not sure how significantly. It wouldn’t be a sudden freezing cloud of darkness, since any drop you might get will be handled by your suit and habitat. The big thing is sunlight, because more likely than not some or all of your power is going to be coming from PV arrays. You can turn up the heater, as long as you’ve got power. We’re far more dependent on the available energy than the weather for our comfort, since even a balmy day on Mars would freeze you solid. Big storms can block out the sun for months, but they come in cycles, so rovers can be ok, wait it out, but people…I’d feel safer with an RTG and a blanket, just in case.

Even on Earth, a dust storm can ruin your day. It’ll only be worse on Mars, that stuff takes forever to fall out of the atmosphere. If you go outside in it you’re going to have a bad day, mmmkay?

Does dust corrode materials?

Oh man, yeah it does. The Moon is a much harsher example of this due to a complete lack of weather, but essentially you’ve got a ton of dust, that is insanely fine, and gets everywhere. Wrecks electronics if you give it a chance, anything that moves gets creaky pretty fast, and if it gets in the hab, it’ll do its best to get in your lungs or scratch your eyes. Then we’ve got the perchlorates that are everywhere too…just try to keep things clean. Your walls and such will be fine, it is technically just dust, but it’s very small and has tiny sharp edges and if you don’t want it somewhere that’s where it’ll be. Designing suits, rovers, computers, just anything that can reliably work on the Moon or Mars for long duration is a discipline all on its own.

Unlike Earth dust that gets smoothed by constant water/wind erosion, Moon dust is a basket of knives that wants to jab you. You’d be treated more gently by a thistle. The dust on Mars probably isn’t quite so mean since it does get blown around a lot, but it’s still really mean compared to Earth.

Do we need to worry about magnetic storms, solar wind, or the weaker magnetic field of Mars with regards to systems and comms?

That would be a huge yes. A solar particle event from the sun, something which is pretty common actually, could kill a whole crew in a few hours on Mars if you’re unlucky. That’d be a big storm, but even the normal ones could take a respectable chunk out of your lifespan. Radiation shielding, burying your base, any sort of protection is going to be crazy important. There’s enough radiation just being provided by Cosmic Background Radiation that you’ll want to be extra liberal on your shielding from the start. The magnetic field of Mars is no big issue for anything, honestly if we could make it like a thousand times more powerful or something that’d be fantastic, really protect the surface and allow us to move safely on the ground. We handle comms just fine with Earths field going crazy all the time. You’ll never be in real trouble of your systems going down in the Hab, that place is going to be insanely hardened by default, though your wireless stuff to anything outside it could be in trouble during a SPE. Should come back though once conditions die down. In short, you’re always going to be dealing with a lot of radiation, sometimes way too much, and not nearly enough magnetic field. Bring gear that can handle it and have a nice cave ready for you to spend a few days in just in case. You’ll see the bad stuff coming up to a week in advance, but you can’t make the planet dodge it should it come your way.

Just looking at some of the relative doses of radiation you can get, I don’t need to tell you that the bigger the bar is, the worse things are for you.

What is the danger of radiation on Mars for humans or plants?

This one was sort of answered above, but in short, there’s a lot of radiation danger. Just the trip there can push you to the edge of 1000 milli-sieverts dosage, which is the point that NASA would forcefully retire you for your own health I believe, double check that one. Fun fact, of all the animals alive on Earth, humans are among the most vulnerable to radiation anywhere. I think even a dog can take something like 6 times more radiation than we can. Simpler things like a fruit fly can take something over a thousand times as much, and there’s bacteria that would be happy as can be sitting in a microwave forever. Plants can take the stuff better than we can, I think, but really the more complex an organism you have and the more often its cells divide, the weaker you’re going to be to the stuff. Virtually everywhere in the solar system except Earth is bristling with killer radiation, you’ve gotta be super ready for it.

You should probably keep this poster by the door, just so you know what you’re getting into on every EVA

Can we purify the soil of perchlorates?

This is one we’re still working on actually. We do it on Earth all the time, but in the spirit of how we do things on this planet, it’s very expensive and causes a lot of problems. Something to do with spraying chemicals and such. On Mars, it may be as easy as rinsing the soil you want to use in water, then evaporating that water to leave behind the salts and voila, you’ve got clean water and a medium for growing plants. We’re also not entirely sure of their composition on Mars. Can we dig down a few meters and get clean soil? Will we be able to adapt cyanobacteria or simple plants to simply handle it? Can we dust the rim of a margarita in the stuff and just enjoy it? This one is in progress, but I’m sure you can find a better answer than I can give on the subject if you dig around.

Hope you guys got some answers to anything, and feel free to either come up with more questions for the next email blast, or ask for specifics in the comments here. I can always pester the rest of the crew for more info, and you guys all coming up with designs that don’t kill me would be fantastic! Have a good week and I’ll see ya around!


4 thoughts on “Answers to Space Questions, Life on Mars

  1. Some of this is a little over my head, but very interesting stuff!

    Just a couple of questions from a clueless layperson, because your poor post looks lonely without comments:

    What do you mean, “the sun is so bright it’s black”? How does that work?

    And if NASA would forcibly retire you for your health after making the trip to Mars, how can anyone go there at all? Even assuming someone makes it there, it sounds like there’s a lot of danger of radiation, so how can anyone possibly live there?


    1. Hi Jana!
      The sun being so bright everything is black on the way to Mars is exactly like when astronauts were on the moon. Essentially the environment is so washed out by the incredibly undiluted sunlight that you can’t see stars. It’s just an endless ink black sky. So if you think you’ll get great views on the way to Mars…nope.

      And the radiation is a huge deal, everyone is still working on that. We can get to Mars with far less radiation exposure if we got there quickly. Or had much nicer shields built into the ship. Or our base was underground, or coated in an ice layer. Right now we totally can’t get to Mars, not without huge risk. A lot of the people talking about going to Mars in the next few years, sending civilians…not naming any organizations but yeah that’s SO never happening. We don’t have a reliable way that’s been proven to be safe yet.

      I mean we could load up a rocket and get there right now, it just really wouldn’t be good for you and you’d probably be a little out of your mind and glow in the dark, ha. We’ll get there, just not in the next decade. The next two maybe.


  2. Even as a radiation worker those levels made me cringe. The only light weight shielding I know are some current research into metal foams, plastics, and a material called Demron. I’ve never seen any except for neutron shielding but that’s still in front of a thick wall of lead or concrete. The nuclear industry tends to be conservative that way.


    1. Lol, being conservative is definitely better than under-guessing your shielding. Though the nuclear industry has the luxury of not really needing to take weight into consideration. Can you imagine building a spacecraft coated in lead? Yiked! That metal foam stuff sounds awesome, I’ll have to look into it!


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