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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Energy On Mars: What Are The Challenges?


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. Related: With Trump Elected, What’s Next For Oil?

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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  • adec on November 14 2016 said:
    the hype continues
  • Bill Simpson on November 14 2016 said:
    Don't hold your breath waiting for people to be living on Mars. The main problem with humans ever living on Mars is the lack of an atmosphere. That causes almost too many problems to list, but I'll give you a few to ponder.
    With little atmosphere, the Martin surface gets hit by radiation from the Sun, and from deep space. The lack of a magnetic field, like the one that protects the Earth, doesn't help. High energy particles from the Sun hit the surface undiminished. That might kill most unprotected life forms, like bacteria and viruses. Get caught without shielding during a big solar flare, and you probably wouldn't last long. I can remember reading how one of the Moon missions missed getting hit by a coronal mass ejection by about a week. The article said that if it had hit when they were on the Moon, they would have died within a few days from the radiation exposure. The Sun is an unshielded nuclear reactor. It can hurt you. Space is full of radiation. Earth is our safe haven.
    Leaving pressurized habitats on Mars without a space suit would be instantly fatal. Humans don't last long in a vacuum. Pressurized and heated space suits are rather expensive and require a lot of expensive maintenance. It's not like in Hollywood movies where those actresses jump into a suit in a few seconds, and walk outside. Watch the testing they do before a space walk from the ISS. And there isn't any dirt or sharp rocks on the outside of the ISS.
    You need a vast amount of energy per person to live on Mars. Water must be obtained from the soil. The water must be split into oxygen to breathe. Habitats must be heated, since Mars gets extremely cold during the night. Crops need energy and water. Clothes need washing and drying. Sewers need to work. People like an occasional shower. Problem is, Mars has no energy source other than solar power, which is weaker than that hitting the Earth. You would need a LOT of solar panels to operate even a small Mars colony - thousands of them. Bringing them from Earth won't be easy, or cheap. Landing heavy stuff on Mars will be a big challenge. Mars has just enough atmosphere to make getting safely down to the surface really tough.
    There are many more challenges to living on Mars. Who knows what reduced gravity might do to human gestation? We didn't evolve in reduced gravity. Cost for a Mars colony? Start at two trillion dollars. Even billionaires won't part with that. And after Trump, their taxes will be going way up to fund Medicare, Social Security, and interest on the national debt.
    The biggest problem might be after people realize that their life is going by living in uncomfortable, dirty, smelly, cramped conditions, when they could be strolling down the beach in LA looking at the opposite sex, or fishing, or riding a motorcycle, or hiking in the mountains and enjoying the beautiful wildflowers, or eating a nice juicy steak. Occasionally seeing noting but red sand and rocks on Mars will get old fast. (Stay inside your house for a couple of weeks to see what it will be like living on Mars. It will be a fun vacation.) They will want to return to Earth. Try to find anyone who would have liked to live on Antarctica for their entire life. And there, you can venture outside during the summer. On Mars, space suit time will be rationed. Using them will use too much consumables for fun excursions outside the pressurized habitat.
    That is why there will never be cities on Mars. A few scientists will probably go there one day. But they won't stay. I doubt they will find any evidence of life. If they find life, potentially bringing it back by returning to Earth could cause big problems. They might have to remain on Mars, or be shot down, should they try to return to Earth. 'Mars germs' might cause a global panic. Put that down there with being hit by a comet, on your worry list. Although a comet just missed Mars a couple of years ago!
  • Joel on November 15 2016 said:
    It seems unlikely hydrocarbons will be burned on Mars by anything other than rockets engines and maybe occasionally in a lab. Creating hydrocarbons just to burn is too lossy a process. More efficient to store energy in a battery and use it later.

    As for costs to go to Mars, Musk is estimating in the $~10B range. That's to fabricate all of necessary vehicles, test them and send the first manned mission. Obviously there will be overruns. Also he is probably not considering the cost of actually creating the facilities for a colony. But if I base my guess on his estimates and adjust for overruns and the like, I'd say that we're talking in the $100-200B range to set up a small, functioning colony. That would seem to mean he will need a lot of outside backing before he can hope to make a Mars Transit System a profitable venture.

    But for what it's worth, I agree with you about energy production. Energy production is going to be the single biggest problem for a Mars colony. A lot of the other issues you talk are really minor in comparison. Solar power on Mars is half as efficient as on Earth. And yet that's the only known local power resource we are aware of.

    BTW, solar panels can be packaged as thin films mounted on light weight fabric. It keeps the weight and packaging volume down, which are more important than aesthetics. Also the effects of solar radiation on Mars are only a few times that of what you experience on an airplane flight. It's not something you want to spend a lot of time doing; but it should be feasible to spend time in an unshielded suit or habitat without increasing your cancer risk too much.

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