How GIS Can Help Make Mars Suitable for Humans

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One of the things that drew me to GIS was the way it systemically categorizes and defines the Earth on which we stand. It can be used to determine where we build, excavate, and otherwise utilize our environment in a way that most benefits us and reduces our impact. There are many different views on how we have treated our planet, some only see exploitation while others see the amazing fruits of human endeavor. I think that everyone can agree that we would prefer to live on a planet that is not full of our trash and pollution. This brings me to the greatest challenge and journey that the human species can conceive of, the habitation of another planet and becoming a multi-planet species. The sheer scope of the challenge and responsibility to build life on another planet cannot be overestimated. GIS technology will be crucial in determining the feasibility of finding the first location on the red planet that humans can plant the seed of life on.

            Currently the vast majority of the information we have on the surface of Mars is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) conducted from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has been collecting surface data from the red planet since 2006 and represents the most current technology currently imaging the planet. The huge datasets that have been collected with HiRISE were used to determine the landing site of the Mars Science Lab (MSL) mission. ArcGIS was used to crunch the data and requirements of the MSL mission to determine that Gale Crater best met the parameters NASA gave them. This same technique will be used to determine where the first crewed mission to Mars will land. Looking at the proposed Starship mission a suitability model weighted heavily to fuel production, solar power, and habitability should be used to determine the landing site. 

The most likely fuel to be used in any crewed mission will be Methalox (Liquid Methane and Liquid Oxygen) with Hydrolox (Liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Oxygen) being a distant second due to its inherent instability and difficulty of containing. In either case to synthesize these fuels requires COand H2O. COis readily available across Mars as it makes up over 95% of the thin Martian atmosphere. On the other hand, subsurface ice has been identified across the Martian landscape but large amounts would need to be present in order to synthesize enough fuel for a return journey. Finally, there is daily energy requirements that must be answered for humans to have any enduring presence on Mars.

 There are two main answers for this: nuclear and solar. Both of these have been tried and proven in space. Once on the surface of Mars, the first priority will undoubtedly be to set up life sustaining equipment and the power to them. Both of the possible answers require pre-sited areas to set up either a solar farm or a safe nuclear power site. GIS will be used to establish where this will be using data collected over the last 20 years. At every stage of our first trip to Mars GIS will be integral.

            After basic setup of habitability systems for energy and oxygen have been completed, the hunt for water begins. This next step will be conducted by geologists and surveyors, building the first robust geologic dataset of Mars. To have the opportunity to conduct an WGS 84 like survey of Mars to replace the Zero Elevation method currently used. This survey will be one of the most important every conducted by humans, laying out the GPS systems to be used and categorizing where resources can be found. Everything that follows the first mission will build upon this dataset and inform future expansion in the most advantageous direction. If this data is utilized and consolidated for all members present on Mars, we may be able to avoid some of the current issues affecting Earth. Early identification of crucial sites that cannot be contaminated, or that large deposit of liquid COwill be the basis of any terraforming operations we conduct.

NASA open source Mars Trek Depicting Opportunity’s landing site and mission
NASA open source Mars Trek Depicting Opportunity’s landing site and mission.

            That brings me to the largest scale GIS project that will be conducted in the next 100 years. How do we reignite the long dead Magnetosphere so necessary for maintaining an atmosphere and shielding the ground from radiation? The terraforming of Mars will be modeled, mapped, and directed using GIS software. Currently, the Martian atmosphere doesn’t even come close to the Armstrong Limit (the necessary pressure for water not to boil at body temperature) and is primarily COwith some Nitrogen. Proposed solutions range from nuking the Poles of Mars which contain massive deposits of solid CO2, comet bombardment of the surface which was what provided Earth with its molten core, or placing powerful magnets in orbit to provide a local Magnetosphere. For future scientists to develop the best solution advanced geologic models will be required to balance time, safety, and feasibility.

            This is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in GIS. My current Geological Engineering program helped connect the dots for how people can even begin to think about how to conduct interplanetary expeditions. Even with my limited experience with GIS, I can see how it will enable the next great migration of humans and turn a cold dead planet into a self-sustaining human colony. I can’t wait to continue my study of the discipline and hope to be involved in any way I can with the terraforming of Mars.


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About the Author

Jacob R. Garner is a First Lieutenant in the U.S Army Engineers. He has recently completed the Captains Career Course and is enrolled in the Army PDP (Professional Development Program) with Missouri Science and Technology studying Geologic Engineering MS.




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