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How Covid-19 will expedite the march of humans to Mars

The Covid-19 pandemic rages on - a new fast-spreader strain was discovered in the UK last week leading to a fresh round of lockdowns and flight bans across the globe, but the good news is that a vaccine is on the anvil. News reports say that it's been approved in the UK and even if the vaccine is delayed but launches by Q2-2021, this will be the fastest developed vaccine in the history of mankind.

This is not surprising - medical science has been making rapid progress since 2003 when the Human Genome Project got completed. Since Covid-19 impacts different people in different ways, its vaccine development also needs to take this into account. In fact, this is true of almost every vaccine and while there may not be a direct correlation between the Genome project and Covid-19, but the completion of Human Genome sequencing along with other medical strides has helped our ability to react to diseases and come up with cures faster than ever.

What has happened in medicine is but an indication of a general trend - the emergence of Covid-19 has in fact aided and accelerated the adoption of technological innovations, which were anyway happening in the background. In fact, the simultaneous march of Information Technology, Biotech, CleanTech, SpaceTech and several other xTechs will now soon usher in the era of MarsTech - an era where all these "earthly" innovations will pave the way to the survival and proliferation of mankind on Mars.  

I spoke to Engineering students about these trends a few months back and a recording of my session can be viewed here:

I have outlined how several seemingly unrelated innovations of the past 30 years, will help in setting up a Martian colony in the next 30.   

Iridium / StarLink 

Iridium was envisaged as a constellation of 66 low Earth orbit satellites providing global communications coverage using small handheld phones. The Iridium satellite constellation was conceived in the early 1990s, but the company failed to earn revenue sufficient to service the debt associated with building out the constellation and Iridium went bankrupt. However, the concept lived on - SpaceX is now building its StarLink constellation to provide high-speed internet connectivity. StarLink is going to be a constellation of 1584 satellites at 550 km altitude.

We don't yet know the fate of StarLink, but the real trick is to understand that a constellation like StarLink would not be just an option, but the only option for the Martian Internet. Given that Mars does not have an atmosphere, and hence no ionosphere - common radio communication will be impossible on the surface of Mars. Also, because the initial martian settlement is expected to be very small - it may not be economically viable to lay a network of fibre optic cables across the Martian surface for data communications. In such a scenario, a constellation of low orbit satellites like StarLink or Iridium would be the best bet for a Martian colony's communication backbone. Not only could these satellites be used for communication but also allied services such as navigation on the yet uncharted Martian surface. 

Solar Roof / Solar Panels 

In the last 30 years, we have not only mastered the art of converting Solar energy into electricity but also overcome several commercial and logistical challenges around it. Photovoltaic cell prices have fallen from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to $0.36 per watt in 2014; we now have detailed knowhow about setting up large solar farms which can generate Trillions of KW of power. And finally, energy storage technology has also galloped so that we can store and regenerate stored Solar power more efficiently than ever.

On the Martian surface, where there is no ecology, and hence no petroleum no coal and no other source of fuel - Solar energy would be the most useful source. It may take a long time for us to build safe Nuclear Power stations on Mars given that the lack of atmosphere makes it much more susceptible to Martian dust, space radiation and even small asteroids. Strides made in generation and commercialization of Solar Power on earth are going to give a fillip to setting up of even larger Solar power generation capacity on Mars making it possible for early Martians to start their colonies.

Electric Cars & Hyperloop

Marian rovers of today are crude forms of Electric cars which would crisscross Martian surface one day. Automated navigation and self-driving are also components in today's Tesla's which would be very useful for the Martian settlers to ferry themselves for long distances over the Martian terrain. Again, with no petroleum and no other source of fuel other than Solar - Electric cars will be the obvious commute option on the Martian surface.

The Hyperloop, a network of tunnels under the surface for rapid transport will further augment the Martian concept of mobility. Given that the Martian terrain and surface would be very rough, uneven, rugged and unnavigable for regular driving, it will make more sense for humans on Mars to dig tunnels just under the surface of Mars to drive from one part of the planet to the other, from one settlement to another.

Further, flying from one city to the other sounds cool on earth because planes fly under the protective cover of the atmosphere - on Mars where that cover vanishes, flying may not be so easy and risk-free. In this context also, even for long-distance travel, it may be better to use the Hyperloop technology to travel between different parts - even two hemispheres of Mars. 


Elon Musk has publicly stated that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities and disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement. This is indeed noble and forward-thinking - but with no government or laws to operate, how will the first Martians undertake commercial activities between themselves? What currency will be used on Mars? How will banking, lending, even normal day to day commerce operate? Surely we don't expect Martians to go back to the barter methods!

The answer to this question has also been arrived at on Earth. The Blockchain, with its trustless arbitration mechanisms and Smart Contracts will be the fundamental element of a Martian self-governing system. Martians could create their own self-regulating crypto currency which could be the dollar equivalent for all martian commercial activities. Martian laws would be smart contracts which will be co-owned by all Martians based on mutually agreed principles. These contracts would be embedded in blockchain code itself so that there would be no need to "enforce" them through judicial or policing means - it would be controlled by software.

Lab-grown meat

What would Martians feed on? It takes about a month and a half to get to Mars - surely Martians would not be able to carry food supplies with them from earth to survive the entire duration of the travel and stay on Mars. In fact, it may be possible that some humans may stay on Mars for years at a stretch. With no atmosphere, and no way of growing food until the first few colonies are built and they set up terrestrial domes, what would people eat? 

The answer again has already been invented on earth in form of lab-grown meat. As recently as last month, Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority (in Singapore) for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry. While this is great news for Global warming (because livestock for meat contributes to 20% of global carbon emissions), but it is the solution to the vexing problem of feeding early Martians and Spacefaring humans in general.

Pandemic Control

No atmosphere, exposure to harmful space radiation and low gravity environment is the most potent recipe for bad health. In fact, while there's no intelligent life on Mars, there may be viruses lurking under the surface of Mars which are completely unknown to the human body against which we may have never developed any antibodies. How will early martians live in such conditions? How would a "sterile life" look like? What methods would early Martians use to counter the threat of unknown viruses?   

Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic has given us several of these answers - the speed with which the vaccine has been developed being one of them. Social distancing, Mask usage would probably be a habit for early Martians and other learnings from how we have dealt with the pandemic, how we have developed and how we will distribute the vaccine at large scale would be experiences which would be useful for setting up processes for an early martian colony.   

To conclude - several innovations by mankind in the last 30 years are coming to fruition and adoption in the next 30 and several of them will pave way for newer innovations which would expedite Mankinds march to unknown worlds where no one has travelled before - the first of which will be Mars! 

Martian Colony Image credits - Wikipedia


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