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Visions of Mars: A Sustainable Life Among the Stars

An interview with Dr. Christiane Heinicke from the "Humans on Mars" initiative

Research / Sustainability / Space

From air to breathe to farming on Mars – a conversation with Dr. Christiane Heinicke about the challenges and solutions for sustainable living on our neighboring planet.

When the rockets for the first human mission to Mars are ready in around 40 years, will you be ready to provide all the necessary knowledge and material for life and survival on Mars?

Fortunately, we are not the only ones working on making a mission to Mars feasible. That would not even be possible; such a mission is too complex for that. That being said, I’m optimistic that it won’t be another 40 years before the first human flies to Mars.

You’ve already drawn up designs for the first living quarters. Why do you think people on Mars should live in tubes and cylinders?

The shape of the dwelling doesn’t really matter, but it is important that it can withstand the pressure difference between the inside (1 bar, just like on Earth) and the outside (6mbar ambient pressure on Mars). Shapes without corners and edges are best able to do this. Think of it like a balloon: when it is inflated, it becomes round. In this respect, spheres would actually be the best house shapes but cylinders are a compromise, allowing furniture to be placed against the wall.

Where will the people living there get the air they breathe?

Houses on Mars, known as habitats, have no windows to open. The precious air would flow out. Instead, the air (and water, too) must be recycled with the help of a so-called life support system: Exhaled CO2 is absorbed from the air and new oxygen is produced at the same time. This can be done physico-chemically, e.g. via absorbers and oxygen tanks, or via electrolysis. Or you can use bioregenerative life support systems in which carbon dioxide is converted to oxygen through photosynthesis.

Will the people take their food with them from Earth, or will they have to be self-sufficient on Mars? How will they do that? Farming and livestock are hardly possible, surely?

Yes and yes. I suspect it will come down to a mixture of food produced on Mars – which will save mass at launch and allow for fresh vegetables – and food produced on Earth, for example, to provide meat for the crew.

There will be laboratories in the buildings but as what and how else will humans work on Mars?

That depends on the specific mission scenario. The considerations range from a strictly research-based station similar to the one in Antarctica, where only the personnel necessary for the station’s operation live alongside the researchers, to larger settlements where sooner or later tourists, among others, will also live.

Do you think that humankind will approach its Mars mission cooperatively or will there be a merciless competition between the USA and China or between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

I hope for the first option. However, as we all know, competition is good for business and may mean that we don’t have to wait 40 years for a flight to Mars.

Sustainability is at the heart of the Humans on Mars initiative – couldn’t that be a disadvantage in the competition with state and private-sector space agencies, who are primarily conducting research with the aim of “conquering” space or other planets?

That depends on how you look at it. We don’t want to participate in a competition that accepts the destruction of the unique environment on Mars as unavoidable collateral damage. Instead, our goal is to demonstrate that humans can live on Mars in a sustainable way, and how. Our hope is to thereby help ensure that the mistakes made on Earth are not repeated on other planets.

How is the colonization of Mars by us humans without exploiting the planet possible? In the whole history of all expansions it was, after all, always different.

We will need the resources available on the ground on Mars to keep humans alive, no question. But the methods we are working on are aimed at using the very scarce resources as responsibly and sparingly as possible. One starting point, for example, is not wasting energy on making a great, shiny product, rather making one that is “only” functional but requires a fraction of the energy needed to make it.

An important part of making life on Mars possible at all is materials research. Do you have an example of an area where actual or potential benefits for us “earthlings” are already emerging?

One exciting challenge of Mars is that there are no fossil fuels there. The only source of carbon is the atmosphere – in the form of CO2. Imagine if we managed to make plastic from this atmospheric carbon. With the same technology, we on Earth would not only have a new, bioregenerative form of plastic production, but incidentally we would have found a way to lower the CO2 content in our atmosphere. The “Martian mindset” is intended to help us now, before humans even fly to Mars, in finding ways and technologies that we can benefit from back on Earth.

About Christiane Heinicke and the Humans on Mars Initiative

The Humans on Mars Initiative investigates innovative solutions for sustainable human exploration of Mars. Geophysicist Christiane Heinicke leads the development of habitats on the neighboring planet. The cylindrical modules should not only be functional, but also designed to support the mental health of the crew. The initiative, which consists of some 60 researchers from various faculties, is developing technologies that can also be used on Earth. The research focuses on human aspects and includes bioregenerative solutions, communication between humans and machines, life support systems, and the use of local resources, e.g. for the production of spare parts on site.

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