15:03 GMT +322 October 2019
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    Autonomous Martian Colony: A Pipe Dream or Future Reality?

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    According to rosy estimates, the soonest Martian colonization might kick offis in the 2020s. But could people create an autonomous settlement on the Red Planet right now? Russian participants of Mars experiments told Sputnik how real this stellar dream is and what challenges the first colonizers of Mars are likely to be faced with.

    The colonization of Mars is one of the most daring and audacious human endeavors the greatest minds of our time are trying to bring into reality. The Mars Society, established in 1998, has now become the world's largest and most influential space advocacy organization dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars, with more than 6,000 members from 50 countries around the world. People voluntarily live in a desert, conduct experiments and exploration campaigns, improve needed skills and strategies and leave their station only wearing space suits — this is how a human Martian colony has modeled in Utah.

    Another station, which is NASA's Mars project, is located beyond the Arctic Circle, in the Haughton impact crater on Devon Island, Canada. Geological and glacial features of this island are close to the Martian ones, and its daytime temperatures are similar to the "summer" temperatures on the Red Planet.

    Business magnate and inventor Elon Musk also came up with a program of creating a Mars civilization by the 2020s, which will take 10,000 flights, according to his estimates. Each SpaceX spacecraft will fit between 100 and 200 passengers, and the cost of cargo delivery will be about $140,000 per ton.

    But could people create an autonomous colony on Mars now, using only the technologies mankind has at the moment? Would those pioneers be able to live in the proper conditions?

    "To establish the colony, which would be entirely self-contained, would be very difficult right now. In the first decades, such a colony would entirely depend on supplies from Earth. They will be in need of food, spare parts for sophisticated equipment and building materials," said Aleksandr Smoleevsky, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who was a member of the Mars-500 program in 2010-2011 during a 520-day psychosocial isolation experiment conducted by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the European ESA and China.

    "Almost all scientific experiments on the creation of a ground-based autonomous colony have failed one way or another. Only two of them were more or less successful: BIOS-3, a Soviet experiment of the 1970s, when a crew of three managed to survive six months, offsetting up to 50 percent of their demand for food by their own forces; and Lunar Palace 1 carried out by China in 2014," Smoleevsky told Sputnik. 

    Five-month experiment at Bios-3 station, conducted by the Krasnoyarsk Institute of Biophysics, USSR Academy of Sciences, during which research in space biophysics was carried out
    © Sputnik / A. Belonogov
    Five-month experiment at "Bios-3" station, conducted by the Krasnoyarsk Institute of Biophysics, USSR Academy of Sciences, during which research in space biophysics was carried out

    The BIOS-3 experiment was held in the basement of the Krasnoyarsk Institute of Biophysics in 1972. There was a hermetic structure constructed at the campus, with dimensions of 14 by 9 by 2.5 meters and a volume of about 315 cubic meters. Inside, this construction had four sections: two for phytotrons — advanced greenhouses for the cultivation of plants, one for microalgae cultivation and the last one designed as a crew cabin. There were 10 experiments held with crews from one to three people, and the longest one lasted for 180 days. As a result, gas and water systems became self-sustaining, and the crews managed to meet up to 80 percent of their needs for food. 
    Student volunteers are seen inside the Lunar Palace 1, a laboratory simulating a lunar-like environment, in Beijing on May 10, 2017.
    Student volunteers are seen inside the Lunar Palace 1, a laboratory simulating a lunar-like environment, in Beijing on May 10, 2017.

    China's 105-day experiment Lunar Palace 1, i.e., Yuegong 1, also proved that an artificially closed ecosystem for a permanent space base can support life completely autonomously. It was a modular complex composed of a vegetation area, a habitation module with bedrooms, a shower room, a waste disposal chamber and even an area, where they grew edible insects.

    Another large-scale experiment, American Biosphere 2, which simulated a closed ecological system, has practically failed. It was a massive structure built by Space Biosphere Ventures and Texas billionaire Edward Bass in the Arizona desert. The construction occupied an area of one and a half hectare (15,000 square meters), with seven climate zones arranged there: they had their own mountains, a savanna, a desert, a swamp and even a little ocean up to 10 meters in-depth, with a living coral reef.

    This 1991 picture shows the Biosphere 2 complex in the desert near Oracle, Ariz.
    © AP Photo / John Miller
    This 1991 picture shows the Biosphere 2 complex in the desert near Oracle, Ariz.

    However, they failed to calculate all the possible scenarios. For example, the experimentalists hadn't considered the uncontrolled growth of microorganisms. As a result, bacteria and fungi multiplied, absorbed too much oxygen, so that an additional portion of gas had to be pumped for other organisms to survive. Ants and cockroaches also bred in large numbers. In addition, water condensed on the glass roof in the morning, and an artificial rain was pouring. Moreover, the researchers did not take into consideration such a phenomenon as the wind: it turned out that trees become fragile and break without regular swinging. 

    Biosphere 2 from the inside
    Biosphere 2 from the inside

    Aleksandr Smoleevsky also highlighted some other very important problems that hinder the creation of an autonomous colony on Mars. "The colony has to be provided with specialists in various spheres, such as engineers, technicians and doctors, as long as a great number of problems will have to be solved. But it is impossible to foresee what professionals will be necessary most of all. Moreover, there may be some loss during a long flight. And another problem is the compatibility of the first colonists with those who will arrive on Mars later," he explained.

    Andrei Bozhko, a participant of a Soviet experiment "Year in a terrestrial spaceship," is also sure that social conflicts between the colonists will be one of the major problems. "Year in a terrestrial spaceship," held in 1967-1968 at the Institute of Biomedical Problems, was a cruel 366-day isolation experiment, where the participants were selected on the basis of incompatibility. Since then, all crews are strictly formed on the basis of psychological compatibility.

    "Women's issues" is likely to rise in the first Martian settlement, too, Bozhko believes. "Perhaps the first colonies must be formed exclusively by men, and women should be sent later. Female colonizers will have to sacrifice their procreation for a lifetime. Several generations of women will be forced to become like men and just work. Children could be sent to Mars as teenagers, but it will be impossible to bring them up with very small amounts of water, the dangers of bacteriological contamination and a lack of the right atmosphere. This situation may last for decades or even centuries," he said.

    "I think the first woman, who will successfully give birth on Mars, will become history for starting new kinds of 'protein bodies' in the universe," Bozhko concluded.    


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