The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 2

Building a large permanent colony on Mars presents some interesting challenges for whomever is responsible for administering it. The first part of this post covers the basic rationale for creating a handbook (or really a large and broad resource) that will help future space colony administrators in their jobs.


Mars Sojourner Rover - Flickr Creative Commons - d_tomono
Mars Sojourner Rover – Flickr Creative Commons – d_tomono

One of the key decisions that will need to be made (on a regular and on-going basis) will be whether to source particular resources locally, or whether to import them from Earth (at significant cost).

In all likelihood, the decision will really be “what percentage of this resource to import”, rather than a binary consideration.

The key to bear in mind with regards to local resourcing is that we are building a large colony with many people, and as a result the processes are going to be at an industrial scale, involving large numbers of people in both construction and ongoing operations, and with the added complication of everything requiring a pressurized atmosphere for people to breathe.


Short-stay missions with a few people can easily bring all of their water requirements with them, even with relatively long transit times. Its also a pretty safe assumption that a permanent colony would use some level of water reclamation, in order to reduce the (vast) quantity of water that will be required for human consumption, agriculture and industrial operations. Bear in mind that there is no such thing as a truly closed cycle in water reclamation – the state of the art right now is around 85% of water reclaimed, much of which is no longer fit for human consumption. A colony that has any significant level of manufacturing (it will need this) will have larger levels of loss, and will thus need new water.

Desalination Plant - Flickr Creative Commons - Melody Ayres-Griffiths
Desalination Plant – Flickr Creative Commons – Melody Ayres-Griffiths

The image on the right is a desalination plant. Obviously there are some significant differences between a Mars-based operation that is creating liquid water out of small quantities of ice in the soil, and a terrestrial desalination plant, but the idea is to get a feel for the scale of the operation.

A large number of people with bulldozers and cranes were responsible for building this in the first place. That equipment will need to be transported to Mars (or built locally).

The engineers and construction workers required will either need to be part of the colony, or reside there temporarily.

My understanding is that plants of this nature don’t require many people to operate, but there will still need to be a few people with the requisite skillset who are part of the colony.

Open pit borax mine in California - Flickr Creative Commons - craigdietrich
Open pit borax mine in California – Flickr Creative Commons – craigdietrich

Here’s another thing: the source material for the water plant will probably be soil.

That means that there will be something like an open-pit mine required in order to feed it. You can see an image of a large open-pit borax mine (again, not a 100% correlation to what a Mars operation will look like) on your left.

The idea is to show the scale of the operations required, not to (sorry for bad pun) rain on anyone’s parade. Everything is feasible, even with today’s technology. However, the planners of a Mars colony can’t afford to hand-wave this stuff away.

What other options are there for water?

As discussed above, water can be brought in at some level of scale with each incoming ship, and then recycled as far as possible.

In the far future, it may be possible to source water from comets. The delta-v requirements, in addition to the scale of space-based industry required probably puts this out of reach for a long while.

Water ice could be brought from the poles.

This topic frequently comes up in discussions regarding lunar colonies as well. To give you some kind of idea of what is involved, consider this: an open-pit mining operation would be required at the pole. Then a pipeline (heated for its entire length) would need to be built over trackless wilderness, possibly for thousands of kilometers (best guess is that a colony would be built closer to the equator, as the conditions are less harsh). That probably entails building a road network first. Lastly, a large number of engineers and service people would be necessary in order to keep the polar operation and pipeline in business.

I have no doubt that this will be seriously considered at some point, but for now the issue is going to be economic feasibility, rather than technology.

In the next post, we’ll discuss other resources (air, food etc).

Continued in part 3, here

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