A message from Mars

Curiosity on Mars looking at the rim of Gale Crater

Curiosity on Mars looking at the rim of Gale Crater. Picture from NASA.

The pictures from Mars take my breath away. I am lost for words to describe the bravado and brilliance of the engineers and scientists who placed this robotic laboratory so gently onto the surface of Mars.

NASA should be very proud. Americans should be proud too: they paid for it -around $10 per head. And we should all reflect on just what human beings can achieve when we put our minds to something.

The brilliantly-conceived mission has revived talk about a possible manned mission to Mars. And I have even heard people talk again about the possibility of colonising the Moon or Mars. While such extrapolations are understandable I think it is important  to understand that human beings cannot live anywhere except planet Earth.

This is not fundamentally true. It is conceivable that we could create ‘bubbles’ of survivability far distant from the Earth. Overlooking the many challenges (e.g. the increased radiation doses; the atrophy of muscles in reduced gravity; and the creation of a stable microbial population etc.), I will concede that it  is possible that we could create ‘bio domes’ in which relatively large groups could live for extended periods away from the surface of Earth. But there is one problem that any colonists will not easily overcome: energy.

Curiosity is nuclear-powered which will allow it to operate through the Martian winter and at night when solar power is weak. Our putative colony might be nuclear-powered too, but for how long? Let’s say (optimistically) that the initial colonists brought with them enough nuclear power to last a century. In that century the colonists would undoubtedly achieve great things. But after the nuclear power station was shut down, what would they do? It is unlikely that a colony could develop the capability to build and fuel a new nuclear power station in just a century. Even if they struck oil on Mars – and refined hydrocarbons flowed easily from the rock – they would be of little use because there is no oxygen in the atmosphere with which to burn the fuel. Ultimately, the colonist’s engineers would find that the only sustainable method of generating energy was solar power.

Back on planet Earth we are in a similar position to our putative Mars colonists. Using fossil fuels we have achieved great things. But our use of fossil fuels is now affecting the flow of energy on and off the planet. Worryingly, the evidence that this is happening is becoming irrefutable. We could use nuclear power for a century or two. But if we want to replace all current energy use with a sustainable source then we have no choice: we need to capture 0.01% of the solar energy which reaches Earth’s surface. Yes. We need just one ten-thousandth part of the 123 000 000 000 000 000 watts of solar energy that constantly warms the Earth’s surface.

Earth is a ‘bio-dome’ driven by solar power. The flow of energy on and off our planet allows plants to thrive – and they provide us with the food and resources we need to live from day-to-day. It is the only place in the Universe where humans can live sustainably. If we want to avoid disturbing the climate that creates this home to which we are uniquely adapted, then we need a truly sustainable energy source. And there is only one

If our planet’s engineers and scientists can put the Curiosity rover onto Mars, and if taxpayers can fund this noble mission, then surely we can collectively decide to live sustainably on Earth and ask our scientists and engineers to make it possible. Can’t we?

Earth

Earth. The only place in the Universe in which human beings can live. But can we live here sustainably? Picture from Apollo 17 courtesy of NASA.

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