The Waters of Life

BIS Space: Odyssey 'The Martian'

Serious problems in surviving on Mars. This edition published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House 2015. Cover image from the film The Martian copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

A supply of fresh water is essential for human survival.  A human being can live three weeks or more without food (though not in any degree of comfort), but the body starts to pack up after just a few days without water.  We know the problem only too well on our own Earth – even though most of the planet’s surface is covered by water, nearly all of it is saline and unfit for human consumption – and the situation is likely to be much more severe on other planets when we start to explore them.

The science fiction writer Andy Weir described this brilliantly in his 2013 novel The Martian, famously filmed starring Matt Damon as the hero of the title.  When he finds himself stranded on the surface of the planet Mars, with no hope of rescue for a very long time, an astronaut becomes extraordinarily inventive in finding ways to survive.  Right from the start of the story, he ensures adequate supplies of power and oxygen, as well as protection from the elements.  He even begins to grow his own food, where being an expert botanist helps, though all does not go according to plan.

But the main problem, at least in the early stages when things seem to be ticking along nicely and before it all goes pear-shaped, then becomes clear: “One complication I hadn’t thought of: water.”

He gets around it, using the ingenuity he displays throughout the book, but the underlying difficulty is that there are no natural sources of water on Mars.  Which may not be entirely the case in reality; in We could just drill for water on Mars (New Scientist, 12 January 2019), Leah Crane explains how the huge ice sheets at the Martian poles might provide the supplies for future explorers.  Drilling down into ice and melting it to create a reservoir has already been done successfully in Antarctica, though we don’t have the technology to achieve the same on another planet at present.

Also, as the author points out, the purity of the water in the ice sheets could be very doubtful.  In her earlier article Salty Martian water may hold oxygen for life (New Scientist, 27 October 2018), she described how groundwater could be rich in oxygen, but there is no certainty whether such brines actually exist in liquid form on Mars, or how much of it there might be.  Even if it is there, accessing it could be difficult enough, and making it drinkable would be even more complicated.

But the Martian poles could still be well worth considering.  The British Interplanetary Society’s 2006 study Project Boreas located its proposed station at the geographic North Pole, recognising that, amongst many other advantages, this would provide the opportunity for drilling into the ice sheets.  In their paper Ice Core Drilling at Pole Station, Stephen Baxter et al explained the enormous scientific benefits from taking ice cores which could provide evidence of climatic conditions on Mars going back many years; indeed, it was a key rationale for considering sending humans to the Pole.

However, they acknowledged the technical difficulties in extracting ice cores, particularly at deep levels.  We cannot imagine that using drilling techniques to develop water reservoirs in the hostile environment of Mars would be anything other than challenging, to put it mildly.  Even so, if available water is present in the ice caps, it could still be the most effective location to create a water supply.

Sadly, though, we almost certainly won’t be finding the vast sub-surface aquifers which enable the Red Planet to be so effectively terraformed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1996 novel Blue Mars, the final part of his award-winning trilogy.  And, as I mentioned in a previous post, Moving Home, timescales for proper terraforming could be somewhat lengthy as things stand.  Until that day arrives, anyone who wants to survive for any reasonable time on the Martian surface will have to take their water supply with them, or make the most of what’s already there.  It’s not impossible but it may be tricky.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Essence of the Human Spirit | Making the Best of a Bad Situation


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