Martian Colonies Impossible Due to Radiation

Martian colonies are back in the news after a tweet storm by Elon Musk. Find out how an astrobiologist instantly shot down his plans.

When I was a teenager, the letter carrier would bring us catalogues from a company called Publishers Central Bureau. They bought up leftover books and records that various publishing houses had “remaindered” and resold them at cheap prices.

I bought a few things from them. The one I’m thinking about today was a double album on vinyl of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Welles made history when he presented a science fiction story about a Martian invasion in the format of a news bulletin. Some of the press at the time reported that the broadcast caused widespread panic.


Historians debate this today. This was in the pre-video era when even still photography was something special for ordinary people.

Honestly, there isn’t much tangible evidence for how widespread the Martian invasion panic was one way or another. Either way, the story serves as a reminder that not so long ago, we didn’t know whether Mars was inhabited or not.

We’ve always been fascinated by the red planet, but now we know that we have to look beyond our solar system to find out if we’re alone in the universe. These days, our fascination is more about building human colonies on Mars than on Mars exploration to look for intelligent life.


And so, a different kind of Martian hoax arose in Europe, beginning in 2012. Mars One had four employees and no background in aerospace or manufacturing, yet it plugged a sketchy scheme to set up Martian colonies.

Mars One signed up over 2,700 wannabe pioneers hoping to spend the rest of their lives living on Mars. They also took in tens of millions of dollars before a Swiss court declared their Martian colony venture bankrupt last January

They were the laughing stock of scientists, engineers and the business community, but Mars One managed to pump up a lot of public interest. Despite that, in the end, they had less than $25,000 left when the directors dissolved it.


Speaking of Martian colony schemes, Elon Musk seems to have way too much time and money on his hands. This week he made a big splash in social media.

He announced that he plans to land a million people on the surface of Mars by 2050. The plan calls for building 100 starships per year for 10 years.

Sadly for him, Musk’s hopes to start a Martian colony were dashed within a week. Caleb A. Scharf is the Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University


In an article in Scientific American, he tells us that he is, “Somewhat wary of people being taken seriously just because they have amassed a lot of cash.” Scharf questions any crewed mission to Mars because of the toxic Martian radiation environment.

He also mentions issues around the thin, carbon dioxide-laden Martian atmosphere, frigid temperatures, lack of water, nasty surface chemistry and weak gravity. Mostly, he sticks to radiation exposure because he feels that most people don’t think about that.

We know quite a bit about radiation on Mars because of the Curiosity Rover. It was equipped with a Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD).

CURIOSITY ROVER’S RADIAtion assessment detector

A research team led by Donald M. Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado reported on Curiosity’s measurements in the journal Science. They looked at galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) and solar wind particles on the Martian surface for a roughly 300-day period.

They found that, because Mars has a very thin atmosphere and no strong magnetic field like the Earth’s, Mars absorbs a comparatively massive amount of radiation. A Martian city would be bombarded with solar wind particles and with GCRs.

The GCRs grind their way through the loose, rocky deposits above the Martian bedrock for several metres. As they work their way down, they eventually collide with the nuclei of atoms, releasing a second wave of gamma-rays and neutron radiation.

TWENTY TIMES THE SAfe limit for radiation

Drawing from the Hassler team’s results, Scharf calculates that spending a year on Mars would expose someone to 20 times the safe limit for radiation workers set by the US Department of Energy. Living with constant, long term exposure to that strange mix of Martian radiation would increase the risk of cancer enormously. Scharf means fatal cancer.

It would also tend to harm someone’s brain function. As Scharf puts it, “There’s a chance you’d end up dead or stupid on Mars. Or both.”

Scharf distinguishes between sending a small team of trained astronauts monitored by space agencies and stranding a million run-of-the-mill colonists to fend for themselves. They wouldn’t have the safeguards and tracking needed to protect them adequately.

wouldn’t have safeguards and tracking

Some people look to Martian colonies for sheer adventure or as the first step toward our human destiny, as in Star Trek, Babylon 5 or so many other science fictions works. Others see them as a lifeboat for when our planet is no longer liveable.

Neither of those visions is realistic, certainly not in the next 100 years. If we don’t focus on our own planet’s health over the next century, we won’t be around to think about colonizing anywhere else.

I don’t think our destiny lies in colonizing other worlds. We can only fully achieve our humanity by solving our problems here on Earth.

FIND OUR humanity BY solving problems here on earth

That means learning how to respect one another’s rights and making sure that everyone has the basic necessities of life. We need to bring our environment back into balance, get our population growth under control and focus on sustainable development that offers everyone a decent way of life.

That’s more than enough challenge for the 21st century, and many people think it’s beyond us. Assuming we manage to pull it off, maybe we can start thinking about spreading out to other planets but my guess is that future generations will be too content to bother.

“there is no more new frontier”

The cliche is true, there honestly is no Planet B. As the Eagles wrote back in 1977, “There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here.”

Humans evolved to live and flourish in our Earth’s environment, which is practically tailor-made for us. If this wondrous planet becomes unlivable, we’re not going to be able to whip up a replacement somewhere else. We need to discover new ways to live in harmony with our shared home.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Goodbye Mars One, The Fake Mission To Mars That Fooled The World
Elon Musk drops details for SpaceX Mars mega-colony
Death on Mars
Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover
The Last Resort
Astrobiology: 3 Questions We Need to Answer
Why Mars? Why Not Life on Venus?
Student Intern Discovers Planet With Two Suns
Earthlike Planet Found by NASA’s TESS

Exoplanet Orbiting Tiny White Dwarf Star


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