It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back
- In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
- Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
- The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points
Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?
Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."
Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.
In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.
Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.
"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."
Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.
Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.
Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.
What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.
It seems inevitable that there will be a Mars colony, but the path there won't be easy. There are two key challenges ahead that will push innovation.
Despite Elon Musk’s inspiring plan to build a human civilization on Mars in 40 years, “the tricky part is to keep people alive,” according to Stephen Petranek.
Petranek is the author of How We’ll Live on Mars, and he knows the challenges of living on the red planet better than almost anybody. He brought that expertise to National Geographic Channel’s Mars series, and each episode reveals a number of threatening hazards to sustaining human life on Mars.
PROBLEM 1: Tough Terrain
Mars isn’t just a red planet, it’s a dead one. “Mars is no place for the faint-hearted,” NASA reports. “Arid, rocky, cold and apparently lifeless,” Mars will be a challenge to live on. Its atmosphere is almost 100 times less dense than Earth’s, temperatures average -81 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has 63% less gravity. All of those conditions, combined with lack of liquid water and oxygen, create really tough terrain for life to survive in.
Thankfully, there are ways we can learn to adapt to those conditions. One such way is through the Haughton-Mars Project, which invites 100 participants to live and work in conditions very similar to Martian terrain every summer. “The Haughton Crater resembles the Mars surface in more ways than any other place on Earth,” the project site explains. It continues:
The surface of Mars is covered with craters of all different sizes, so the terrain, like a demolition site, is made up of loose rock. The terrain at Haughton Crater is similarly covered with loose rock, making it a good analog for researching extravehicular activities (EVAs) and mining technologies. Haughton Crater is also a valuable analog for science research, since it contains an uncannily large variety of Mars-like geological features.
By living and working in this environment, participants experience the challenges of life on Mars firsthand – including living in habitats and wearing suits that mimic the decreased gravity of the Martian atmosphere. Every participant brings back valuable data that will one day be used to create the first human settlement on Mars.
That said, Petranek told us that he thinks there’s a better solution for humanity’s survival on Mars: terraforming. Terraforming, or transforming Mars in a greener, more Earth-like planet by thickening its atmosphere, is a viable solution. But while Petranek likes terraforming because he believes it can be done quickly (“just look how quickly we changed our own atmosphere,” he told me), other experts disagree. Michio Kaku bluntly told us it’ll take centuries to terraform Mars. Bill Nye told us that terraforming Mars, or colonizing it all, would be practically impossible:
PROBLEM 2: Radiation
Another problem with Mars’ thin atmosphere? Radiation – and it’s a doozy. Richard Davis, Assistant Director for Science and Exploration in NASA’s Planetary Science Division, explained it to The Week this way: “A longer-term hazard [to humans living on Mars] is the general exposure to higher levels of radiation whether it be from the sun or sources external to the solar system. We can minimize these effects, but there will be increased exposure and thus a higher risk of cancer later in life.”
Radiation is the biggest problem we’ll have to solve in order to live on Mars. Research done by University of California Irvine showed that “astronauts who experience prolonged exposure to space radiation could suffer from a long-term cognitive impairment,” CBC reports. The results of the research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, were dire:
Exposure to these particles can lead to a range of potential central nervous system complications that can occur during and persist long after actual space travel - such as various performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making. Many of these adverse consequences to cognition may continue and progress throughout life.
The study concludes that "cosmic radiation exposure poses a real and potentially detrimental neurocognitive risk for prolonged deep space travel... [and] deep space travel poses a real and unique threat to the integrity of neural circuits in the brain." Petranek agrees with this, as he told us:
Preparing humans to survive radiation exposure is a bit risky, so the best solution might be finding permanent shelter that offers long-term protection from it, like a lava tube – but training humans to live in a lava tube might still be problematic. “Lava Tubes are large cavernous underground caves formed by hardened lava after molten rock has flowed through it,” Screener TV explains, per the Mars show. “To the untrained eye, it’s a night-black hole as deep as the Grand Canyon. And it’s at the base of this cave the astronauts are looking for their home sweet home.” Of course, once humans live in those tubes, they’ll have to setup power plants and generators and habitats in order to live down there. That’s a tall order for people who are used to sunlight and fresh air – and not one very many are eager to try out.
Yet, for all of those difficulties, the excitement of making the red planet home inspires smart, dedicated people like Musk to create solutions. The more problems we identify now with our potential life on Mars, the better our chances for survival will be when we get there.
National Parks have long been a staple of American wildlife conversation. Why not have some underwater?
Awestruck by nature, early American explorers wrote about western landscapes in terms of such singular amazement that residents of the east coast interpreted their accounts to be works of fiction. Since then, national parks and reservations have been established throughout the United States in order, as stated in the so-called Organic Act of 1916, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” An imperative to preserve natural beauty and diversity runs through much of American history. The benefits of national parks far exceed their profound picaresque appearance: they help to maintain biodiversity and to produce quantities of fresh air that are crucial to our survival. In short, they constitute a wonderful means of preserving ecological stability and splendor.
Sylvia Earle—marine biologist, oceanographer, explorer, founder of Mission Blue, and subject of a recent documentary—recently published an article with John Bridgeland underscoring the virtues of America’s national parks and calling for the establishment of similar areas of conversation for underwater habitats. Earle has long been both a scientist and a passionate advocate for marine habitats. Indeed, she was the first female chief scientist of NOAA and eventually left the position once she felt that the job compromised her ability to advocate on behalf of underwater ecosystems. Offering a pithy overview of the relevant stakes, she says: “No ocean, no life. No ocean, no us.”
American marine life has suffered enormously in recent years. For example, rising ocean temperatures precipitated what NOAA described as the third “global coral bleaching event,” which harmed many of the world’s coral reefs, severely threatening regions near Florida and Hawaii among others. Indeed, “NOAA estimates that by the end of 2015, almost 95 percent of U.S. coral reefs will have been exposed to ocean conditions that can cause corals to bleach.” NPR reported that Codfish were once so plentiful on Cape Cod as to sustain New England’s fishing industry; now, local cod are increasingly scarce and local restaurateurs are switching to serving cod from Iceland. Among the many other marine animals dwelling in American coasts whose populations have fallen and struggling to recover or persist are orca, beluga whales, manatees, otters, seals, and sea lions. A lot is at stake in the cause to protect marine habitats.
While underwater national parks are a novel idea, identifying specific regions for special protection is not. Earle herself coined the term Hope Spots, which refer to areas of critical importance to the well being of Earth’s oceans. President Obama recently expanded a national marine monument in Hawaii to become the largest protected area in the world, over twice the size of Texas. This, in part, was building on George W. Bush’s decision to establish the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
While there is evidence of support from both sides, much more is necessary to protect marine ecosystems both in America and globally. Earle and Bridgeland write, “Bipartisan progress has been made in the U.S., but we must aggressively build on it here and around the world.” One big step would be to draw on the successes of National Parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite by creating similar areas for underwater habitats.