In 2015, Ridley Scott directed the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. The story is ultimately about a mission to Mars where Matt Damon’s character (in the film) gets stuck on Mars and grows potatoes to survive. Science-fiction films can cause a lot of hype and lead to false expectations. For example, the majority of us are still waiting for humanity to be whizzing around on hoverboards as depicted in the film Back to the Future. But The Martian could actually become a reality. Probably not the Matt Damon part – unless he wants to – but the rest.
In this blog, we will explore the current landscape of Mars colonisation and its ethical considerations, while also delving into the potential use of synthetic biology to support life.
A trip to Mars
A human mission to Mars has been the subject of science fiction and scientific proposals since the 20th century. Plans range from exploration to potential colonisation.
In 2015, NASA published its strategy for human exploration and subsequent colonisation of Mars. The strategy involves three distinct phases. The first is already underway and is known as the ‘Earth Reliant’ phase. This phase involves the continued use of the International Space Station to validate deep space technology and study the effects of long duration space missions on the body. The second stage ‘Proving Ground’ moves away from Earth and ventures into cislunar space for most of its tasks. The final phase is the transition to independence from Earth resources – ‘Earth Independent’ phase. This includes long-term missions on the lunar surface and harvesting of Martian resources for fuel, water and building material. NASA aim for human missions to Mars to begin in the 2030s, however, Earth independence could take much longer.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, publicly proposed in 2016 plans to begin colonisation of Mars by developing a high-capacity transportation infrastructure. They plan to use their Starship system for the first human missions to Mars. The strategy has two phases. The first involves at least two Starship cargo vehicles landing on Mars to confirm water resources, identify hazards and build support infrastructure. The next step will see two Starship crew vehicles taking the first people to Mars with more equipment and supplies to build up a base.
Conditions on Mars
Mars is very cold. The average temperature is minus 80-degrees Fahrenheit – which is way below freezing! Mars has clouds and wind which blows red dust into dust storms. Additionally, Mars has about one-third the gravity of Earth and the atmosphere is much thinner. The Red Planet contains more than 95% carbon dioxide and less than 1% oxygen, meaning humans would not be able to breathe the air on Mars.
To date, there are three NASA spacecrafts orbiting Mars. They use scientific tools to collect information about climate, land features, radiation and minerals. On the ground, the Curiosity rover and InSight lander are studying the Martian surface. NASA’s Perservance also launched in July 2020 and is now halfway to Mars. The rover is carrying a small helicopter and will hopefully land in February 2021. The key objective of Perseverance’s mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will be the first mission to collect rocks and soils to bring back to Earth. It also has a tool that will try to make oxygen like a tree does, which could help prepare for when humans first visit the planet.
Interestingly, in a recent study, geologists developed artificial soil mixtures that mimic materials found on Mars to determine how to grow plants on Mars. Fortunately, Mars’ surface contains the majority of plant essential nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The presence of nutrients overcomes a big barrier, however several challenges still remain, including plants accessibility to these nutrients.
Getting to Mars itself is only a small part of the challenge. The bigger problem is surviving once we get there. That’s where synthetic biology can play a role.
When astronauts first land on Mars, everything they need to survive will have to be carried with them. However, packing everything is not simple. Transporting anything to Mars will cost about $300,000 per kilogram. Therefore, reducing the weight of load is important. Synthetic biology could be used as an alternative approach. Synthetic biology involves reengineering organisms and components to make them useful in a new way. In this case, scientists can create and recombine DNA parts that when combined can encode useful cellular functions. Specifically, microscopic bacteria can be engineered and frozen in small tubes. They are valuable as they can rapidly propagate while also providing a lightweight resource for space missions.
The soil on Mars is toxic to human and animals. Astronauts could potentially use cyanobacteria or algae as renewable food sources. In this case, synthetic biology could be used to increase nutritional value of these organisms. For example, introducing new flavours or even generating medicines. New genes could be introduced that would allow cyanobacteria to make human-essential supplements, vitamins and amino acids. Alternatively, researchers could use synthetic biology to remove the toxins within Martian soil. For example, researchers could introduce perchlorate-degrading enzymes from Dechloromonas aromatica into faster-growing bacteria, yeast or roots of plants to detoxify some of the soil and enable growth of edible crops. Excitingly, researchers from Rijn IJssel Vakschool and Wageningen University recently prepared a dinner from vegetables grown on simulated Martian soil to show that, in theory, it is possible to grow crops on Mars.
It would be impossible to stock all the required medicines on the trip to Mars. Most importantly, complex molecules lose their function faster in space due to increased radiation. Therefore, it would be very difficult to store medicines on Mars. Yet again, synthetic biology could help! Most of our medicines come from naturally producing bacteria, fungi or plants. Therefore, synthetic biology could help develop a handful of species that could produce them all.
There are many other ways in which synthetic biology could help us live on Mars. This includes developing bio-fuel cells that could provide us with renewable energy, creating bacteria that could convert exhaled carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen and also creating bacteria that could extract metals from Martian dust to make electronic devices. The Space Synthetic Biology (SynBio) project, located at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California’s Silicon Valley, is currently developing technologies to biomanufacture valuable products such as vitamins and medicines.
There are several ethical considerations around the colonisation of Mars – both with regards to humans and Mars itself. One of the most prominent arguments against colonising Mars is the potential harm to any indigenous life forms that may exist on Mars. While we are currently not aware of any present lifeforms, it may be the case that processes are occurring through which life on Mars could emerge. Therefore, Earthling settlement could disrupt these processes. Other arguments involve the magnitude of the costs for such missions, which means funds are shifted away from other projects or purposes.
There are also social impacts of colonising Mars. For example, if Mars colonisation is successful and there is the opportunity to move – who gets to escape and who is left behind to deal with the mess we have created on our own planet? Missions from Earth to Mars could also generate a lot of space junk that would make future space travel hazardous. Additionally, the disruption to gravitational balance could impact the entire solar system. Space flight also has several risks. While participants will be made fully aware of known risks, does informed consent immediately make it ethical?
The biological and social challenges of colonising Mars must be heavily considered. This draws parallels with the Apollo 11 protests. During this time, many individuals questioned the costs of the moon missions when millions of African Americans were in poverty.
Colonising Mars is ambitious. It could provide resources and potential settlement for humans to avoid extinction. But most importantly, it satisfies curiosity. We are one planet, in one solar, in one galaxy, amongst the abyss. It is impossible to comprehend this mass scale. I think that’s why I enjoy space, but also genetics. Genetics is the opposite of space – it is on a minute scale. Again, almost impossible to comprehend. The fact that both of these entities can be combined to push boundaries, to expand our knowledge, is fascinating.
Who knows when, or if, we will reach Mars? Or what laws and jurisdiction would be put in place there? Who knows? Maybe Matt Damon could be President.
Image Credit: By upklyak – www.freepik.com