Life on Mars: Will humans trash the planet like we have Earth?

December 20, 2018 by Katharine Lackey, Usa Today
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Mountains of garbage, plastics that take thousands of years to disintegrate, oil spills in pristine environments from drilling into the soil or underneath the ocean: When we go to Mars, is it inevitable we'll repeat the same mistakes on Earth?

Resources will be so limited that creating a will be nearly impossible—at least at first. That's because humans will only take what we absolutely need due to the limited space on rockets and spaceships and the time it takes to get to the planet—nine to 11 months, one-way.

"Everything that you use and you create on Mars is so valuable. You simply can't afford a pollution stream, you can't afford a waste stream at all. Everything will absolutely be recycled ... at least in the beginning," said Stephen Petranek, author of "How We'll Live on Mars."

As part of the efforts to eventually get humans to Mars, we've already put our mark on the planet through rovers and the latest NASA mission, InSight, which recently snapped a selfie as it begins getting to work mapping the inside of the planet in 3-D to better understand it's evolutionary origins.

But we will have a far greater impact on the planet when humans get there, especially if terraforming—making the planet more Earth-like by modifying its atmosphere—occurs.

"It will probably become a problem when Mars does seem a lot more like Earth and resources just aren't as hard to come by," Petranek said. "But people on Mars can choose, once they figure out to have a non-waste environment and a non-pollution environment, there's no reason for them not to keep that."

That doesn't mean it will be easy, said Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut.

"That balance of not polluting and terraforming versus understanding how we can live in this ecosystem in a way that's not going to damage it for our own use: That's a really tough balance to strike," he said. "We need to learn from our mistakes here on planet Earth as to all of these systems and things that have been damaged because of, some of it's greed, some of it's let's get as much oil out of the ground."

When you put it in perspective, it didn't take that long for humans to create issues here on Earth. While we've been around for hundreds of thousands of years, it's only in the past couple hundred that we've created major problems, said Antonia Juhasz, an author, analyst and investigative journalist with expertise in oil and energy.

"We have made this planet increasingly inhospitable to an increasing number of humans who live here," Juhasz said. "The lessons from what has gone wrong with fossil fuel extractions on Earth must be understood because no matter what, even if we go to Mars, not everybody is going to Mars."

To do that, she said, we need to change our mindset—we can't just look at Mars as an empty space with no value other than how it can provide for us.

"If we do that on Mars, will we then just create another planet that is no longer hospitable for us? Are we going to then go down through the solar system destroying or are we going to learn from our mistakes?" said Juhasz, who speaks about the potential of industry colliding with environment on the Red Planet on National Geographic's "MARS" series.

"If you look at Mars and all you see is red dirt, but it turns out that if humans are going to live on Mars, they're going to actually need some critical component of that red dirt," she added.

But Petranek said the driver for the pollution and trash on Earth just won't be a factor on Mars—at least for a very long time.

"The primary problem on Earth is that the reason we are so wasteful and so destructive is we can't seem to agree both within our own country on what we should do and nations don't agree," Petranek said. "That isn't going to happen on Mars because survival is going to be so much more critical."

While there will be little to no waste at first on Mars, that doesn't mean we can ignore the potential to backslide down the road, Juhasz said.

"We have a much longer history which is people knowing that they could only use certain resources, and reusing them much more conscientiously, then we have only a limited history in which we decided you could use anything and everything and it didn't matter what we did with it," she said. "Hopefully, we can reflect back on that longer history, and keep that with us if we go to another planet."

Explore further: Mars makes closest approach to Earth in 15 years

Related Stories

Five things to know about InSight's Mars landing

November 1, 2018

Every Mars landing is a knuckle-whitening feat of engineering. But each attempt has its own quirks based on where a spacecraft is going and what kind of science the mission intends to gather.

NASA's First Image of Mars from a CubeSat

October 23, 2018

NASA's MarCO mission was designed to find out if briefcase-sized spacecraft called CubeSats could survive the journey to deep space. Now, MarCO—which stands for Mars Cube One—has Mars in sight.

Image: Kaleidoscopic view of Mars

July 22, 2014

Astrophotographer Leo Aerts from Belgium took advantage of the recent opposition of Mars and captured the Red Planet both "coming and going" in this montage of images taken from October 2013 to June of 2014. Mars reached ...

5 things you may not know about the planet Mars

August 3, 2012

Mars is set to get its latest visitor Sunday night when NASA's new robotic rover, named Curiosity, attempts to land there. Mars has been a prime target for space exploration for decades, in part because its climate 3.5 billion ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 20, 2018
Desperate much for content, from USAToday today even? modus ponendo ponens
not rated yet Dec 20, 2018
Humans need to suffer greatly. Specifically, they need to understand that money can not be the center of existence. We do not eat money, we do not breath money, we do not drink money, money does not love us. A human without spiritual life is less than a beast, it is a very dangerous, cruel, destructive, selfish and deceiving creature.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.