Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Earth first, Mars later

by José Martín Cabello Lechuga*

Economic Geologist, Science communicator, Past President, Sociedad Geológica de Chile (Geological Society of Chile)

José Martín Cabello Lechuga
As Astronomy is the oldest in the Natural Sciences, it is not uncommon for many people today to dream of traveling to Mars which is on average 65 million kilometers from my beloved blue planet with the aim of installing a human colony. There's talk of having a million earths on the red planet. As an admirer and amateur of our immense universe I wanted to analyze this attractive proposal from my scientific point of view given my profession as a geologist obtained from the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Mathematics of the University of Chile where several of our most outstanding astronomers have trained.

The first thing was to know how healthy for a human being is to live on Mars. And I came across a planet without vegetation, described as a wind-scoured desert with virtually no water in liquid state and with horrific average temperatures (-46oC) for any homo sapiens. Its atmosphere is composed of 95% carbon dioxide with a weak ozone layer too feeble to block ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The average pressure is equivalent to the pressure of the Earth's atmosphere at a height of 35,000 meters. Another climate element to consider are the intense dust storms, the largest, strongest and most durable in the entire Solar System. The wind can reach 100 kilometers per hour, and the storm lasts for months.

I was left thinking that it does not seem to be such a good place to live but that it should most be very cheap to travel there during 9 months, as well as install a colony on the red planet. I checked the figures published and found that sending humans to Mars would take only $ 500 billion. By way of comparison with that figure we could finance a 17 million people nation's budget for almost 7 years.

It seemed to me then that it was a good time to re-check how good it is to live on Earth. Our blue planet is at the right distance from the Sun to have optimal surface temperatures for living things. Its vast oceans have remained liquid, since shortly after its formation about 4.5 billion years ago. It is the only planet with plate tectonics, which recycles nutrients and other essential materials for life through the inside of the planet and back to the surface.

Earth is unique in sustaining an atmosphere that is one-fifth of oxygen, which was generated by single-celled organisms and that drove the evolution of multicellular organisms. The materials we use come from Earth: fuels, minerals, groundwater, even our food (through soil, water and fertilizers).

We have a mental affinity for certain places on Earth, for the regions where we grow and live, and for the wild and beautiful landscapes, whether preserved in parks or in our everyday environment. It is a welcome home for humans with its blue color for its water, white for its clouds, and green for its life. An incomparable planet in our solar system, and probably very rare in the universe. But we have altered the surface extensively during our occupation: construction structures, burning forests and meadows, damming rivers. Almost daily we are informed of large fires, floods, seas and polluted skies in many parts of the world. And in many countries we have absurdly sacrificial zones affecting their inhabitants. We are a planet with almost no effective territorial ordering.

The process of understanding the Earth has just begun. We need to understand the complexities of terrestrial systems so that humans survive and thrive for more than a moment in geological time. We must find and develop the resources needed to sustain and improve the human condition, especially when we are living through Climate Change and its consequences.

So it is meritorious to prioritize understanding and above all the care of our planet, which requires urgently dedicating adequate budgets. And once we solve all the pressing problems affecting our ecosystems and their inhabitants, only then will we invest to travel throughout the Universe.

Sounds like a good time to request: Earth first, Mars later.


Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

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