It’s starting to look like people may go to Mars in our lifetimes. Credit is due to Elon Musk for bringing the concept to the forefront of public discussion, but there are now multiple different organizations and agencies looking seriously at missions to the Red Planet. Musk controls SpaceX and has stated a goal of sending people to Mars in the next decade, but it looks like other private companies like Blue Origin and governments from the U.S. to China are all interested in the concept as well. NASA for instance is holding workshops on bringing people to Mars and the pragmatic ecological steps that would need to be taken for such a mission.
A key facet in going to Mars will be energy production though. Many people assume that energy production on Mars will be primarily solar. The reality is probably a little more complicated than that. Mars is a desolate environment with extremely high levels of radiation, a frigid surface temperature of around -80 degrees Farenheit, and no liquid water on the surface. While small scale missions to Mars might be able to deal with such a situation, any larger mission or longer term presence will require some level of terraforming. And that’s where microbes and energy production Mars comes into play.
It’s enormously expensive to launch anything into space from the Earth at this point. A commonly cited number is that it costs $10,000 to get a can of coke off the Earth and into orbit – and that still leaves the cost for almost the entire distance of the trip to Mars. SpaceX and other firms are working on innovative technologies to lower those costs, but it’s always going to be pricey to have materials leave orbit. As a result, materials on Mars will need to be maximized.
One of the key materials for energy production (and substance of life of course) will be water. Mars has frozen water, and that water can probably be most effectively used by microbes to begin producing a variety of materials needed for a sustained presence on Mars. Microbes can help with producing everything from plastics to gases like methane. Certain microbes could be put to work making food, oxygen, or fuel, or recycling waste to make nutrients for plants and people. That production in turn can be used for other purposes, such as burning of natural gases for heat and fuel. Microbes will also be critical for the production of rocket fuel from water – a necessity for anyone to ever leave Mars once they arrive.
Microbes and other biological agents are going to Mars regardless of steps take to limit the impact by humans. Humans will carry them. Such microbes could also help with mining and breaking down rocks and minerals to produce useful metals in a fashion similar to what is already done on Earth where “biomining” is used to harvest gold and copper. Other microbes could glue grains of Martian dust together to make bricks for homes.
The broader point here is that the future of energy production is much less certain than many assume. Solar power will undoubtedly play an important role in any missions to Mars in the future, but more conventional sources are going to be just as important.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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