I’ve been a geek about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science-fantasy version of Mars for over twenty years. For much of that time, the idea of going to the real Mars, and of humanity establishing a colony there, was relegated to the realm of fiction and make-believe. Every bit of news about mankind’s progress toward landing people on Mars seemed to just kick the can down the road. Long ago, I grew skeptical of NASA’s will, and funding, to get there in the foreseeable future. I didn’t think that any other organization had a comparable or serious plan to get to Mars within the next thirty years. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the public eye to keep alive the inspirational spark that would make a human presence on Mars feel like more than a dry scientific exercise. I wondered if there would be anyone with the expertise and the funding to go to Mars AND the heart to celebrate the inherent thrill of it. I began to wonder if fiction would be the only route to Mars in my lifetime.
By the summer of 2016, I had a casual awareness of SpaceX. I had heard that they were trying to improve rocket technology, specifically in their pursuit to land boosters back on Earth to allow for reuse of hardware – an economical breakthrough and an industry first. I knew that they had contracts with NASA for the delivery of supplies to the International Space Station. But I had not heard, or imagined, that a private company would have its eye on the big prize – the Red Planet. Such an endeavor could surely only be achieved by a massive government-funded program, right? Who else would be able to put all the pieces together, and who would be crazy enough to even try? I had heard that Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, was a technological innovator and accomplished businessman. During his presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) on September 27, 2016, I learned that SpaceX’s overarching mission was to colonize Mars. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7Uyfqi_TE8 It was announced that the first, unmanned spacecraft was to be sent to begin to pave the way for a colony as early as 2018. Make-believe suddenly burst into the real world, as dreams coalesced twenty years earlier than I had hoped. With the Red Planet freshly on the astronautical horizon, I, a geek of ERB’s fictional Mars, figured it was time that I try to get up to speed on the real Mars!
Currently, the next milestone on SpaceX’s path to Mars is for them to finish and launch the Falcon Heavy (FH) rocket, the first of their rockets that will have sufficient power to get spacecraft to Mars. After the FH gets off the ground late this year, the next milestone will be in 2018, when the unmanned Red Dragon capsule is to be launched atop a FH, and sent to test propulsive landing on Mars – a technique which forgoes parachutes and airbags and is entirely dependent on the built-in boosters of the capsule. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07Pm8ZY0XJI The Red Dragon mission is the small tip of a much larger spear which was described in detail during Musk’s presentation at the IAC.
The SpaceX flagship for Mars colonization will be the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qo78R_yYFA It will be the largest rocket ever built, and will be able to take one hundred Mars colonists at a time to the Red Planet. It is in the design phase, and is currently scheduled to make its maiden voyage in 2024. Once the colony is up and running and can accommodate massive numbers of new colonists at a time, the plan is to send dozens, or even hundreds of ITS spacecraft simultaneously to Mars. SpaceX has proven to be uniquely motivated and situated to get to Mars several years ahead of any other organization, public or private.
Though Mars has half the diameter of Earth, the two planets have almost the same amount of dry land surface area, due to the oceans which cover two-thirds of the Earth. Mars has nearly fifty-six million square miles, while Earth has just over fifty-seven million square miles of dry land. That is a lot of space for a prospective colony. One wonders how SpaceX is going to choose exactly where to land the SUV-sized Red Dragon capsule. In a recent post to The Mars Society group on Facebook, member Matthew Lebo asked the group for opinions about where the best location would be to establish a colony. This inspired me to investigate the question a little deeper. Where WOULD be the best place to establish a colony on Mars? The answer might be right where our understanding of Mars first began to broaden, at the first surface feature that was ever observed on a planet other than Earth.
Syrtis Major Planum, first noted by Christiaan Huygens in 1659, is a dark-colored region on the surface of Mars, about as long as California and twice as wide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrtis_Major_quadrangle Syrtis Major, and the areas on every side of it, host many first-rate scientific sites. Three of the eight proposed landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover are in the northeast Syrtis Major region and constitute the closest concentration of sites of scientific interest currently being considered, on all of Mars. http://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/imgs/2016/09/Mars_2020_LandingSites_Final_8.jpg Within and beside Syrtis Major there are locations where a dozen unique scientific questions could be investigated, and in many cases, multiple locations for each question. Syrtis Major is an extinct shield volcano, so there are likely lava tubes in the area, which may be useful as shelter for human habitats early in the colonization process. There are interesting minerals in the dual caldera. In the region, there are dune fields, ridges, geologic layers, clays, and evidence of former water flows in many places. Several geologic features, such as faults and breccia dikes, allow for the possible presence of precious minerals such as gold, making the area ripe for mining.
The dozens of hydrated silica deposits in Syrtis Major are a source of water, and a scientific curiosity. There are theories that there are areas of significant water seepage along the sloped transition between Syrtis Major and Isidis Planitia. These seem to be the only significant water sources within an eight-hundred-kilometer radius. Eight hundred kilometers to the north there is a Lake Superior-sized, sub-surface water ice deposit in the Astapus Colles region of Utopia Planitia. There is another water-rich area in the Terra Sabaea region, nine hundred kilometers to the west of Syrtus Major.
Syrtis Major is close to the equator, stretching from zero degrees to twenty degrees north latitude. This makes the location conducive to solar power production, and minimizes seasonal fluctuations in temperature and light. Exploration and expansion to the south would provide access to many interesting sites in or near the Hellas Basin, which is the region with the lowest altitude and thickest atmosphere on the surface of Mars. An observer standing on the western edge of the Hellas Basin would see a drop-off eight times deeper than the Grand Canyon, with an expanse the size of half of the continental United States.
Topographically, Syrtis Major has vast featureless expanses with a slope of less than 1%, which should allow for the safe landing of all necessary ITS spacecraft, while also providing ample room for all necessary ground-based infrastructure. The slope down into Isidis Planitia represents one of the smoothest transitions between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands of Mars, and would provide easy access into vast regions of navigable terrain in both directions. If terraformation were ever to allow seas to form, Isidis Planitia would likely flood and provide contiguous ocean access.
Nili Fossae, in northeast Syrtis Major, is Mars’ major source of methane. This gas is crucial to the production of rocket propellant – a crux of SpaceX’s plan for a colony. The question is, would it be better to land where the methane is readily available, and make do with water derived from hydrated silica and seepage from the slope, until infrastructure can bring abundant water from the far north or far west, OR would it be better to land in a water rich area and build the infrastructure toward the methane? The best-case scenario would be if the near future held a Mars satellite-enabled discovery of a massive water ice deposit in Syrtis Major, close to Nili Fossae. Only time will tell.
Perhaps someday Syrtis Major Planum will be home to humanity’s first permanent presence on another planet.