There will be life on Mars in the future, if you ask Philip Metzger—and that life will be us.
Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Florida who co-founded the NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Work Laboratory, is confident humans could colonize the Red Planet. Not that it would happen tomorrow. Mars should not be a space race despite NASA’s aim to blast astronauts there by 2030 and companies like SpaceX looking to make Mars travel and possibly colonization lucrative.
“I don’t think there’s really a viable case for colonizing Mars until after we get a supply chain established”, Metzger said recently as a speaker in Sustainable Expansion: Reaching Mars and Beyond panel at the New Space Age Conference at MIT. "Just like email — and, later, Facebook — were killer apps that made the internet economically viable, so there will be particular uses of space that will make the space industry economically viable.”
If there’s an app for everything, apparently there’s also an app for Mars.
You probably don’t have an icon on your phone for propellant mining unless you just traveled several decades backward through time with your iPhone 70, but that is the first “killer app” Metzger believes is vital to sustaining a colony on Mars. He imagines using a spacecraft to excavate the rocky material of an asteroid and then extract chemically bound water molecules as both potential fuel and a way of sustaining the water supply on an otherwise arid planet. To turn H2O into high-powered jet fuel, the craft would transfer it to an orbiting depot that would split the molecules, then drop it off on a space tug that would inject the fuel into a satellite as an ultimate boost. This is much more convenient than conventional satellites that take forever to get into orbit and waste astronomical amounts of time and money.
3-D printing makes the next killer app sound even more sci-fi. Seen as a solution for the overwhelming demand for internet that constantly increases, enormous internet antennas would be 3D-printed from some of that metal ore previously mined from asteroids (see the supply chain starting to form?). Earth internet satellites are never in sync with our planet’s spin. This would make it almost impossible to hand data off to satellites coming in from behind to transfer that data to Mars. The antennas would remain in a geostationary orbit, each positioned over one particular location and spinning at the same rate as Earth. Fiber optics and low-earth satellites would route high-priority requests, while your favorite streaming TV series and anything else less urgent would reach you via geosynchronous satellites.
Even if humans were to inhabit a Martian city not unlike those in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, we would still need an influx of sustainable energy. Computers devour energy so fast that they could leave us devoid of energy by the time a Mars-bound rocket is ready to launch. Beaming solar power to Earth would solve that problem by tapping the never-ending (at least for the next 5 billion years) energy of the sun through an orbiting array of mirrors dreamed up by former NASA scientist John Mankins. The only negative is that someone would have to find the trillions of dollars to build such a thing on Earth and launch it—unless the contraption could be manufactured entirely in space.
Metzger is confident about the viability of this massive interplanetary project. He foresees a future where infrastructure and industries will gradually make their way into the anti-gravity zone and build a consistent space-based economy in which production outside Earth’s atmosphere is the norm. Meaning, we would save an incredible amount of money by eliminating the need to launch things.
“The more industry there is in space,” he said optimistically, “the easier it will be to build spacecraft to colonize Mars.”