we can’t run to mars from our problems on earth

March 15, 2015

KSR_RedMarsKim Stanley Robinson, the science fiction author of the Mars trilogy “Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” and “Blue Mars,” was interviewed on 6 March of this year by Blog Picture Science. In that interview Robinson discusses what has transpired in robotic planetary exploration over the last 20+ years since the first novel came out in 1992, and how that has re-shaped his thinking about the key assumption in his novels, that assumption being that it would be fairly straightforward to terraform Mars.

Now, he believes it’s going to be a lot harder and take a lot longer to accomplish.

His reasons for this change in thinking are based on:

  1. “There’s much less nitrogen on Mars than there should be if there had been an ordinary distribution through the solar system in the original planetary accretion.This is still mysterious but it apparently exists and we really need nitrogen, so that’s one problem.”
  2. “Another problem is there could be indigenous bacterial life down in the basement regolith which is to say a kilometer underground or 100 meters underground and that’s going to be very hard to disprove. So when we go there we may be intruding on alien life.”
  3. “And lastly the surface is covered by perchlorates which are poisonous to humans in the parts per billion range and the Viking lander didn’t reveal that. It has since been revealed by our subsequent landers. Now those perchorates could be changed into something more benign to humans by introducing a surface bacteria of our own to eat them and process them because they’re basically salts. But that would take a long time. So these are new stoppers that I didn’t know about when I wrote my books.”

In case you’re curious where you’ve heard about perchlorates, they’re used in high-performance solid rocket motors as well as explosives. In 2013 the EPA started to regulate perchlorate in drinking water due to its adverse effects on the thyroid gland in pregnant women and young children here on Earth.

On Mars, perchlorate concentrations in the Martian soil are estimated at between 0.5 and 1%. That may seem small, but perchlorate adverse effects on humans can be caused by concentrations in the parts per billion range. With all the fine dust on the surface of Mars, there’s no way it wouldn’t get into a Martian habitat and slowly poison the inhabitants. Any permanent one-way colonization effort to Mars would be a trip of death, something that the Mars One effort may not have even considered. Or perhaps they did get the perchlorate memo; contracts to develop the 2018 robotic lander have run out and as of February 2015 were not renewed. This could be as simple as a plain old lack of money, but that lack could have been triggered by someone bright enough to really appreciate the issues Robinson has pointed out.

Further into the interview, Robinson states “[W]e have to make a reconciliation on this planet (Earth) there is no planet ‘B’… the terriforming of [Mars] is too long, it’s really thousands of years and we only have decades to get it together here… [Mars terraforming] can only follow on the first great project, which is sustainability here (on Earth).”

I think we’ve got our work cut out for us right here on this planet. But before you think I’m down on the whole idea of Mars, Know that I’m not. The following video, “Voyager,” came from Robinson’s website. It’s a bit about how we might colonize our own solar system, our own bit of space with all our planets. But we have to make our civilization sustainable on our original world, to preserve this unique planet called Earth. Only then will we have a chance to make it sustainable everywhere else.