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The Trinity Voice

The student news site of Trinity Preparatory School

The Trinity Voice

The student news site of Trinity Preparatory School

The Trinity Voice

Mission Failure

Reasons against colonizing Mars
Mission+Failure
Sam Miller

As glaciers retreat, sea levels rise and global temperatures continue to reach new heights, humans have started to wonder whether Earth is past redemption. For many, the solution to climate change is no longer reducing our carbon footprint or plastic consumption, but rather abandoning ship entirely.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, believes that the only way to ensure the survival of humanity against climate change is to relocate portions of our population to Mars.

“We don’t want to be one of those single planet species; we want to be a multi-planet species,” Musk said in a speech at the launch of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission in April of 2021.

What 20 years ago seemed like the plot of a good sci-fi comic may soon become a reality. As CNBC in April 2021 reported, Musk predicts that SpaceX will land humans on Mars by 2026.

This solution, however, won’t come without severe environmental and ethical consequences that beg the question of whether or not we should colonize mars regardless of feasibility.

HEATING UP EARTH

A 2022 study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has found that significant increases in spaceflight during coming years may damage the ozone layer beyond repair.

Kerosene-burning rocket engines release exhaust containing black carbon into the stratosphere. These hydrocarbons then deplete the protective ozone layer that surrounds Earth.

The research team at NOAA used a climate model to predict the impacts of releasing 10,000 metric tons of soot into the stratosphere per year for 50 years. For reference, an estimated 1,000 metric tons of exhaust are currently emitted each year. Their conclusion was startling: under these circumstances, annual temperatures in the stratosphere would rise by 1ºF to 4ºF, and the ozone abundance in the poles would deplete significantly.

Such changes to Earth’s atmosphere would be deadly. The protective ozone layer that surrounds Earth shields organisms on the surface from harmful UV radiation that can cause cataracts, lead to skin cancer and damage agriculture. Increases in global temperature will be just as dangerous; effects of worsening climate change will likely include more frequent natural disasters, poor air quality, food shortages and rising sea levels.

A mass migration of humans to Mars would increase spaceflight activity at least ten-fold (the value used in NOAA’s climate model) if not more, meaning it will be impossible to move to Mars without condemning Earth. We will have to choose.

A LEGACY OF COLONIALISM

In February, NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence of ancient water waves on Mars in the form of rippled rocks, renewing the age-old debate over whether or not aliens have ever existed on Mars’s surface.

“We see signs in Mars’ ancient rocks that liquid water did exist in the past, and the presence of possible metabolic energy sources, which means life could have developed there,” said Dr. Mitchell Shulte, Program Scientist with NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and Planetary Science Division. “We have not found any evidence of this yet, however.”

The uncertainties over life on Mars have emerged as a primary concern for philosophers and scientists researching Mars exploration and migration.

“If we find any life on Mars … we should maintain a completely hands-off attitude towards the planet,” said Dr. Ian Stoner, Saint Paul professor and author of the article “The Ethics of Terraforming: A Critical Survey of Six Arguments.”

In his article on terraforming, the “Earth-shaping” of a planet, Stoner warns about the dangers of recreating colonialist sentiments on Mars.

“We should not be so arrogant about meddling with systems we don’t understand,” Stoner said. “We should not be so sure that our way is the best way and we should impose it on other places. And, we should learn that lesson from our own history of colonialism on Earth and not recapitulate it on a different planet.”

Obviously, colonialism on Mars will look different than on Earth, given the fact that life may not exist there; however, the promotion of the colonialist mindset is still incredibly harmful both on Earth and Mars.

TERRAFORMING: IMPACTS ON THE MARTIAN ENVIRONMENT

Over 3.5 billion years ago, Mars’ surface was thought to have flowing rivers of liquid water, a thick atmosphere and plenty of organic molecules; it was the ideal home for life.

But, billions of years ago, solar winds transformed the surface of Mars into the cold desert we know today: a planet with an atmosphere too thin and a climate too cold to support human life.

As global policymakers and scientists begin to consider the possibility of migrating to Mars, they have also begun to brainstorm ways in which the red planet could be made habitable once more.

Elon Musk, for example, has suggested nuking Mars’ poles to create a warmer climate and liquid water. This, however, likely wouldn’t be a long-term solution as the carbon dioxide created from nuking the poles would only double Mars’ atmospheric pressure, which isn’t nearly enough to match Earth’s, since Earth’s atmospheric pressure is over 100 times greater than the red planet’s.

Breathing also presents a huge challenge to future explorers, as the oxygen composition in Mars’ current atmosphere is too low for humans to survive. NASA’s MOXIE project is currently researching ways in which carbon dioxide on Mars can be converted into oxygen.

“The objective [is] to make oxygen that is pure enough to use as fuel, with the idea being that you could make at least some of the material you would need to return home [on] Mars, rather than bringing it with you,” Schulte said. “Of course, the oxygen generated could also theoretically be used for the astronauts to breathe.”

If successful, this technology could be used by future explorers to survive, but it’s unlikely that this technology could ever spread throughout the entire planet as the amount of oxygen created by MOXIE is very small.

There is a common argument made that exploring Mars and developing strategies such as the ones mentioned above will teach lessons on how to survive in extreme environments that can be translated back to Earth. Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

“We’re not going to have any ability to do anything useful or good or nondestructive on Mars until we figure out how to live lightly in our own environment,” Stoner said.

CONCLUSIONS

Despite the numerous ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the colonization of Mars, companies like SpaceX continue to move forward with plans to colonize or at the very least explore the red planet, seemingly unbothered by any harms they may create along the way.

It appears that while policymakers on Earth may be learning lessons on colonization and environmental preservation, they will not carry their newfound knowledge over to Mars, instead, choosing to relive history.

To avoid the worst of climate change, scientists predict that the world will need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The seeming impossibility of this goal has led to the consideration of Mars as our solution. However, while space travel may save pockets of humanity, the emissions generated by these rocket engines would condemn the rest of Earth.

Instead of looking for a way out, policymakers around the world should focus more on environmental actions that will reduce emissions and ensure humanity’s future on Earth.

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About the Contributor
Lucy Chong, Layout Editor
Lucy Chong is a sophomore entering her second year on staff as a layout editor. In her free time, Lucy enjoys debating on the forensics team, binging novels and eating sushi. You can contact her at [email protected].

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