Why a Martian city could well extend beneath the surface?

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The entrance to For All Mankind’s Happy Valley. Apple

Apple TV+’s alternative space race, For All Mankind, imagines what would have happened if USSR cosmonauts, and not NASA astronauts, had been the first to land on the Moon. Instead of the decline of interest in space that followed the moon landings in our reality, throughout the show’s four seasons to date, the race has continued toward lunar and then Martian settlement.

In the latest season, the finale of which aired on January 12, 2024, initial colonization efforts on Mars have developed to the point where an international alliance supports and maintains a single large colony. Dubbed “Happy Valley,” the Martian city features a series of interconnected modules.

Tubular corridors run between larger half-pipe and geodesic structures that house control rooms, laboratories, meeting rooms, and living quarters and mess halls for the base commander and other senior commanders. Most residents live underground.

Two people on each side of an octagonal window.

With its Artemis program, NASA plans for humans to live outside Earth’s orbit. This would include a lunar base camp, as well as a space station orbiting the Moon, with the goal of sending people to Mars. People have long dreamed of knowing what structures those Martian explorers would live in, and scientists have experimented.

Life on Mars?

By the early 20th century, enough uncertainty remained to allow for planetary romances like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels. Written between 1912 and 1946, they tell the story of a 19th-century American veteran transported to Mars and were brought to life in the 2012 action film, John Carter. These fantasies paved the way for more serious consideration of survival on Mars as our understanding developed.

However, astronomers were already establishing that the planet’s surface was arid, cold and toxic. Long before Burroughs completed his series, it was clear that the great cities of Barsoom, open to a breathable atmosphere, could never exist.

One of the first stories to seriously consider the scientifically understood conditions on Mars and the life that could emerge from them was Stanley Weinbaum’s 1934 novella, A Martian Odyssey. According to telescopic observations of the planet’s cold, thin air and spectra indicating a lack of both water and vegetation, this was a Mars devoid of urban landscapes, but not life. Salvaging what he can from a crashed shuttle, the protagonist traverses 800 miles of Martian landscape and encounters a variety of interesting Martian shapes.

In the early 20th century, Mars’ atmosphere was believed to be thin, but not necessarily beyond the range of human adaptability. After all, settlements on Earth exist at altitudes up to 5,000 m, where the atmospheric pressure is less than half that on the surface. Early estimates of Martian surface pressure were at this stage (rather than less than 1%, as we now know). Thus, Weinbaum speaks of “months spent in acclimatization chambers,” but otherwise frees his explorer (and any settlement on Mars) from the needs of managing the atmosphere.

Go underground

By the mid-20th century, observations from Earth and the first of the Mariner probe missions had dispelled any doubt about the hostility of Mars’ atmosphere. The cities imagined by mid-century science fiction writers were encased in enormous protective domes. These could contain an Earth-like environment and allow humans to breathe and move freely without protective equipment.

These domed-surface cities can be found in examples ranging from children’s films such as Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, to the work of established authors such as Larry Niven (see his 1966 story, How Heroes Die). Some saw these domes as completely urbanized. Others envisioned a more dispersed settlement amidst a managed landscape.

A vintage magazine comic.A vintage magazine comic.

This dominant image of Mars cities persists to this day, in images from Mars colonization enthusiasts, including the international Mars Society and SpaceX. However, research suggests that as a long-term home, a vaulted environment would have significant flaws.

Since the 1960s, scientific understanding of the impact of radiation on humans and their offspring has advanced. The planet lacks the protection that Earth’s thick atmosphere and strong magnetic field provide our DNA against a shower of ionizing particles from the Sun and beyond. The smart dome materials could filter out some of this, but they could not protect astronauts from the cumulative effects of penetrating particles, leaving their occupants vulnerable to cancer.

As noted by many writers (including Niven in the aforementioned story), large domes would leave a city on Mars vulnerable to air leaks as well, as well as the extreme fluctuations in day-night temperature that the planet experiences (of -125°C to 20°C). ). Additionally, the material would be worn away over time by sandstorms so extreme they are visible from Earth.

Instead, many researchers now consider underground or cave settlements as sites for human settlement on Mars. Here protection from temperature, radiation, sandstorms, and air leaks is provided by a thick layer of regolith (soil or rock), reducing the cumulative exposure that settlers would face.

While the Red Planet now lacks surface water, it likely has cave systems dating back to its wetter, tectonically active youth, and unlike Earth, its surface earthquakes are rare and weak. If natural caves are not available, tunneling or even using surface rock dust to create a Martian concrete form may be good alternatives. In fact, partly with Mars prototyping in mind, NASA and ESA have explored the idea of ​​3D printing and then burying habitation modules on the Moon, which experiences many of the same risks.

For All Mankind has been noted for its realistic physics. The production team includes a NASA technical advisor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, their Happy Valley colony, which descends several levels into the Martian subsurface, represents a plausible vision for future Martian cities. However, unlike the series, real-world Martian residents could seek out underground levels for the greater protection they provide.

Planetary settlements remain an increasingly distant prospect in our reality, but science fiction has always played a role in shaping public understanding of our planetary neighbors and fostering enthusiasm for their exploration. Just as Burroughs’s novel Barsoom inspired the scientists who worked on Mars landers in the 1960s and ’70s, today’s viewers of For All Mankind could include the engineers and scientists who will one day make his vision a reality. of a Martian city.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Elizabeth Stanway receives Science and Technology Facilities Council funding for her astrophysics research

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