Mars – A planet sized Antarctica

Mars and Antarctica have a lot of similarities when it comes to the difficulties that both places have for human settlement. This article looks at how we occupied Antarctica and what we might learn from that when it comes to sending humans to Mars.

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In a lot of ways the human occupation of Antarctica may offer a useful way of predicting how humans might approcah the same with Mars. There are, obviously, some huge differences, such as Mars is a bit further away and significantly more hostile to human life. There are also some striking similarities, and its these similarities which might make it useful to think about how humans might begin the occupation and eventual exploitation of Mars. This article is going to focus mainly on how the human settlement of Mars may not be like one big happy family but more like neighbours jealously eyeing up each other’s activity and projecting national priorities through the Solar System, similar to a cynical view of humanities approach to Antarctica.

Firstly, no one owns Antarctica, many nations have registered claims to chunks of the continent but no one actually legally owns any of it, at the moment. The Antarctic Treaty was originally signed in 1 December 1959 and now has 53 signatories. Originally it was the nations that had some historical involvement in the exploration of Antarctica that agreed that they would get together and undertake to only use the continent for peaceful purposes. Among the nations that signed the treaty were countries that had already made a claim to a chunk of the continent including; Agentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Russia and the United States maintain a basis for claim and everyone has their claim protected under Article IV of the treaty which basically says that no claims can change and no new ones are recognised and that no one has sovereignty. Essentially the treaty just parked the claim process while the treaty remains in force. So what has happened over the years is that many nations have established bases on the ice and have conducted scientific programmes for many years. Some of the bases are very sizeable and have staff that winter over. The below picture is of the French Dumont D’Urville station in Antarctica from Wikipedia.

A couple of interesting additional articles are relevant in thinking about how nations might develop a similar set of rules for Mars. One deals with the exloitation of mineral resources where nations originally agreed that they would not mine on Antarctica and as it currently stands, no mineral prospecting is permitted other than for scientific purposes. The other area which is quite interesting is that signatories agreed they would share scientific research and generally collaborate. In recent years, biotechnology has become more prevelant with a focus going on life that has evolved in the harsh climate on Antartica and what applications that may have in medicine and other areas. Again, any discoveries made are supposed to be shared. The Treaty has made it hard for nations to pursue their own national interests in isolation on the continent, it hasn’t prevented it, but its certainly made it a little more transparent. It basically turned the continent into a militray free zone and scientific reserve.

Mars and Antarctica have a lot of similarities including they are both cold, they are both not easy to get to and it’s difficult to sustain life there. The bases in Antarctica require regular resupply through a lifeline back to their host countries. The same would apply on Mars, at least for the first few decades. The Antarctic environment is hostile to human life and venturing outside requires protective clothing and safety gear which is similar to how people would operate on Mars – with the addition of having to take your breathable atmosphere with you.

So what can we learn from the development of human occupation of Antarctica to the way we will conduct ourselves on Mars? First the access bar is very much higher for Mars than Antarctica, as evidenced by the fact that we haven’t put people on Mars yet and we’ve been going backwards and forwards to Antarctica for more than a century. But this is not a barrier to consider the similarities, as there’s likely to be three countries with the ability to get to Mars in the next two to three decades, those being the United States, China and Russia. There’s a very real possiblility that all three will establish some sort of presence, probably independantly. They will then be faced with the question on how will they cooperate and behave.

These nations will represent the interests of humanity whether they like or not and will have a obligation to act responsibly. Part of this is enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty in that states cannot make a claim of sovereignty to the Moon or any celestial body and they are not permitted to put weapons of mass destruction into space, they’re also prohibited from a range of military activities. So assuming the agreement holds, Mars should avoid being claimed by anyone and will be free from military activity. What is not limited is resouce exploitation and as humanity gets established on the planet there will be increased needs for resources leading to increases in resource exploitation. There will come a time when the resource needs of two or more nations present on Mars come into competition with each other.

On the issue of claiming chunks of Mars, even though it is forbidden under the Outer Space Treaty there’s the issue of presence. If you have a large settlement you exercise control over the area – you may not have legal sovereignty but for all intents and purposes you are exercising sovereignty. In fact the Outer Space Treaty notes that spacecraft remain under the ownership of the source nation and that nation carries responsibility for any damage the craft or crew causes. More so, most designs of habitats are actually made from the actual landers.

Similar to how nations regard each other’s claim to Antarctica, the same situation is likely to occur on Mars. Nations will not recognise each others implied claims but will respect them, noting that the time may eventually come when presence on the planet will give legitimacy to any future framework that permits a claim of sovereignty. As the technology develops to get to Mars easier then we are likely to see a scramble for presence, much like the rapid building and advance that has occured in Antarctica over recent years in anticipation of the 2048 expiry of the Antarctic Treaty System.