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The Big Future: Can we colonize Mars?

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Mars has been seeing a lot of action lately, between NASA's string of rovers and new projects from Elon Musk and Mars One. But what would it take to set up a permanent settlement there? Could humans survive in such a harsh and alien setting? In this week's Big Future, Adrianne Jeffries takes a look at the nuts and bolts of a martian settlement, from food shipments to radiation management. There are a lot of problems, but we've got good ideas about how to solve them.

The Big Future

We could get water from Martian ice

The most encouraging sign is the discovery of water ice on Mars. (There's even some evidence it was once liquid water.) If the colony set up next to a martian glacier, it could potentially convert the ice into drinkable water and breathable air. That would go a long way towards providing for the basic needs of early colonists.

The Big Future

It's hard to grow food on Mars

We don't have any idea how to produce food in Martian soil, so even the most ambitious settlements will rely on years of food shipments from Earth. Still, any meaningful colony would have to create a self-sufficient food supply eventually, either through industrial or agricultural breakthroughs. And then there's the radiation...

The Big Future

Radiation could still make colonists sick in the long run

Background radiation is thousands of times higher on Mars than it is on Earth, so even if we succeed in all the other areas, settlers would still probably face shorter and less healthy lives on Mars. Human beings simply didn't evolve for the Martian environment. But despite the many problems, Mars is still basically as good as it gets. It's close, relatively similar in climate, and there's enough sunlight to run solar power grids. If we can't make it work there, we won't be able to make it work anywhere.

If you're still curious, you can read Elon Musk's plans for a Martian colony, or check out the early materials from Mars One. And check back next week, when The Big Future takes a look at rewiring the human brain.