What Will the First 1,000 Days on Mars Be Like? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Brent Godfrey
What will life be like for the first Mars colonists? Join us... and find out!

Humankind is going to Mars! After decades of planning, talking, and speculating... we're now closer than ever to actually GOING to the Red Planet. But what will life be like once we get there? In this video, Unveiled lays out the schedule for the first 1,000 days on Mars. That's almost 3 YEARS worth of excitement in just one short video!

What Will the First 1,000 Days on Mars Be Like?

Colonizing Mars has long been a dream for many on planet Earth. But what seemed impossible a few decades ago, is increasingly becoming a feasible reality. Nowadays, we’re no longer asking “will it happen?” but “how will it work?” And we’re picturing what the crucial first few years will look like when we finally establish a colony there.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: What will the first 1,000 days on Mars be like?

Before you start packing your bags and preparing for life as an interplanetary settler, there are a few things you should know about our dusty, red neighbour. For starters, the trip is going to take anywhere from three-and-a-half months to a year, depending on the positions of Earth and Mars at the time of take-off. Upon arriving, you’ll be greeted by a seriously harsh environment. The wild west has nothing on the brutal conditions of the red planet. Not only is Mars a barren desert, but it’s also an incredibly cold, incredibly hostile desert. With average temperatures around minus-60 degrees Celsius, very little oxygen, and extreme solar radiation due to the lack of atmosphere, the only way to enjoy the great outdoors on Mars would be in a spacesuit. However, you may have some fun with Mars’ gravity. With 62% less gravity than Earth, bouncing around would be exhilarating. And with a year on Mars lasting almost twice as long as on Earth, you’d have plenty of time to practice cutting some shapes.

Mars wasn’t always so hostile to life, though. Once, it was a lot like Earth. Around the time life was emerging on our planet some four billion years ago, Mars was home to rivers and lakes. While we don’t know for sure, the conditions certainly seemed like they were favourable for life. However, that changed when Mars lost its magnetic field, allowing its surface to be ravaged by solar winds, effectively eliminating any chances of life from that point forward. So what if, upon arrival, we changed the surface of Mars back to something more suitable?

Terraforming Mars would be a massive undertaking. For starters, it’s far too cold, and its atmosphere far too thin, to support liquid water - something all life as we know it needs. And there’s precious little breathable air. First of all, then, we’d need to warm its surface. Which is easier said than done. Elon Musk has famously suggested exploding nuclear weapons over the Martian polar caps to release what we need. But, even if we were able to do that, the carbon dioxide created by the evaporating water might never be enough for our requirements. So, what are the other options?

Some have suggested mining the trapped carbon within Mars’ surface, and building an atmosphere out of that. But that also seems unlikely to provide enough of what we need. Scientists are currently experimenting with a bacteria, too, that could potentially convert Mars’ current atmosphere into breathable oxygen. There have been some promising results, but any technology capable of transforming the entire surface of a planet is still a long way away. On top of that, we’d need to fix Mars’ broken magnetic field, if we ever wanted to maintain an atmosphere - an impossible task with current tech. And, in the context of today’s video, even if we were able to address all these issues, it would likely still take more than 1,000 days to properly transform Mars into a life-sustaining planet. We might set things up in our first three years, but it’s doubtful that we’d yield the reward so quickly.

So, while instant terraforming may be off the table, that doesn’t stop us from planning a future on Mars - it’ll just mostly be confined to indoors. And, in truth, the work would begin long before any humans arrived. The first few trips will likely be unmanned, depositing robots and cargo to prepare for the eventual arrival of us, humans. These robots will scout a suitable location for the establishment of a permanent colony. They’ll make sure there’s plenty of resources nearby and may even flatten out an area to create a landing space for future shuttles. If mining were the way to go, then the robots could also start drilling for CO2, and any other resources we may need.

When Mars has been suitably prepared for our arrival, the first few crewed shuttles will launch. According to a June 2020 study by French Professor Jean-Marc Salotti, and published in Scientific Reports, the minimum number of people needed to properly settle a planet for long-term habitation is 110. When those 110 people get to Mars, though, they’ll likely spend the first couple of years - 700 days or so - aboard the ship that brought them there. That’s because the settlers will have to spend their time constructing permanent housing structures… but, in the meantime, their ship will already have everything they need for shelter.

The permanent structures will need to be self-sustaining, be protected from Mars’ high levels of radiation, and be capable of supporting life for long periods of time. Perhaps the simplest solution, then, would be to build them underground. It’s estimated that building structures under at least ten feet of soil would be soil enough to protect people from the intense radiation. The next big challenge, however, would be providing these structures with enough oxygen. Relying on shipments of oxygen from Earth could present a major problem in the event of a disaster. But this is where the MOXIE project comes in.

MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, is a prototype being tested on the Perseverance Rover. The small unit, about the size of a car battery, is able to take Mars’ CO2-rich atmosphere and convert it into breathable oxygen. Currently, in its small form, it’s able to create one hour’s worth of oxygen with each test. For it to work for just one human, it would need to be at least 100 times larger. But there’s no doubt that, here, we have already made an exciting start.

Nevertheless, if not for oxygen, then during the first few years on Mars… settlers will have to rely on cargo drops from Earth for food. This is because Mars is a very poor place in which to grow crops. Its soil isn’t really soil, it’s regolith, a loose, rocky material. And it contains a salt called perchlorate which is toxic to humans in large quantities. The sunlight on Mars is also a lot weaker than it is on Earth, which hurts any crops that require it to grow. All of which means that hydroponics, currently being used on the International Space Station, are probably our best bet. This involves growing crops indoors and providing all the nutrients plants need via liquid solutions. The problem, however, is that it’s tough to produce food that’s high in calories this way. While lettuce may be great for a salad, you can’t subsist entirely on it. Even with hydroponics up and running, it still may only be able to account for much less than half the required food for a colony. So, here’s hoping those cargo drops are always on time.

Medicine will also be a challenge on Mars. For a colony to be truly self-sufficient, it needs to manufacture its own medicine. Scientists are, of course, currently working on that problem. Artificial leaves being developed by a team of scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, for example, are said to be able to take small amounts of sunlight and turn it into enough power to fuel the chemical reactions needed to make medicine and other compounds - in what could prove a huge breakthrough for health and first aid on Mars.

So, now that we’ve dealt with many of the technical problems, what would life be like day-to-day for the average person? The first week or so upon arrival would likely be spent adjusting to Mars’ gravity. The long trip and the change of atmosphere will certainly be hard on the body and the mind - so those making the journey will need time. After that, it’s straight to the daily grind of building habitable structures, mining materials, conducting experiments, and trying not to get lonely. Because of the positions of Earth and Mars, shuttles may only come and go every two years. This small launch window means that the first group of settlers might be on their own for at least that period of time… But then, when a new group does arrive, and some of the originals perhaps return to Earth, we could start to see a lot of growth on Mars. Fresh faces, new ideas, and new networks combined with the priceless experience of the original team, and by “Day 1,000” the first permanent Mars base may well have been established. Complete with its own dock and refuelling station, this is when Mars will start to truly resemble something out of a Sci-Fi movie.

But, between now and then, there’s so much work ahead of us. And those brave first groups of settlers will spend most of their time building what could become a future second home for the people of Earth. And that’s what the first 1,000 days on Mars will be like.