Foundation of an Autonomous Colony

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The Foundation of an Autonomous Colony on another cosmic body is one of the most challenging tasks for humanity. Though it requires enormous effort, the goal to expand the influence of mankind and of life in general throughout the Solar system is worthwhile. This motivation has several aspects. This article covers general issues of an autonomous[1] colony on Mars.

Colony with dome buildings and underground facilities.

What is an autonomous colony/settlement? The main attribute is independence from Earth. Once the colony is set up, it provides an habitat for settlers on the long run, hopefully forever. The second attribute is a planned and indefinitely stable colony that can thrive from local resources. Unlike a mission with planned ending the settlers in an autonomous colony have a future for themselves and for their Mars-born children. The ultimate expression of independence from Earth may be the complete political independence of a colony.

Technological issues


The transport of colonists from Earth to Mars is a complex part of the plan. There are many threats inherent to space travel: Solar & Cosmic Radiation, Meteorites, Physical & Mental Illness, etc. Plans will need to be made to deal with every possible problem. However, this is mainly a construction problem, as an autonomous settlement by definition does not require travel from Earth.

Life support

Since people cannot live in the natural environment a basic artificial habitat with houses, supplies and equipment for a long term stay is required on Mars' surface. The equipment must be technologically sufficient to allow the colonists to grow their own food, build new houses, etc.

There are many uncertainties about the impact of the Martian environment. The equipment would be tested on Earth thoroughly, but the influence of the Martian environment cannot be understood completely on Earth. The safest way is an unmanned setup of a whole settlement by an automated and remote controlled machinery. However, the large scale of a truly autonomous settlement may make such an endeavor overly expensive. gradual development is probably more practical.


Energy is the most critical resource. It is needed for lighting and heating of greenhouses, for metallurgy and production of machines. The critical path is the generation of enough energy for the production of spare parts for the energy generating systems and greenhouses. In other words: If the energy generating systems and greenhouses can not be maintained endlessly with the amount of energy they produce, an autonomous colony is not feasible.

The available solar energy on Mars is slightly less than have the one available on Earth for the same area. An analysis of the embodied energy in solar panels fabricated on Mars would need to be done to prove that the panels can generate more energy than they use for their construction and operation. The embodied energy of polycristalline solar panels, including the support structure, is about 4000 MJ/km2[2]. A solar panel on Mars should produce about 3,6 MJ/day. So the cell would produce the energy for it's own fabrication in about 1100 days, or about 3 years. So the rest of the energy produced during the cells lifetime can go to other uses, and it should be possible to create a self sufficient settlement. Periodic storms might reduce the production, but this does not change the conclusions.

  • If nuclear fuel can be extracted from Martian ores, then nuclear energy is a viable alternative to solar energy.

Long term risks

Bringing down Phobos before a settlement is built may help to make Mars safe for the long term. however bringing up Phosbos is also a viable alternative.

Organizational Issues

The preparation cost for a mission like this is tremendous. A financial effort estimation helps to get an overview.

Within a small group of colonists, a daily council of all members may be sufficient to address the needs of governance, much in the tradition of the New England town hall meetings. In a growing community some kind of representative democracy may become necessary, although this type of government may not be well suited to a small colony in a hostile environment. The nature of the dangers the settlers face may define the type of government required.

Independence/autonomy doesn't require isolation. Mars can have independent settlements that are not isolated from Earth or from each other, have regular increases of their population through immigration and trade with Earth in the financial spheres and information spheres, even if they are independent physically.

The high value of sunk costs for a settlement, in particular if it is financed by the public sector, and therefore, in a sense, belongs to people on Earth, may limit the amount of autonomy that will be granted to it. On the other hand, if most of the settlement is built using in Situ resources by the settlers, the colony will be their property.

Medical Issues


Two options seem possible:

  • Before heading for Mars any crew is quarantined to ensure they do not suffer from infectious diseases. As a result, the Martian colony should be more or less free from pathogenic germs, which saves medical effort. However, for children born on Mars an even more effective vaccination program will be necessary to stimulate the development of Mars-born immune systems.
  • People continue to live with microbes and pathogens. It will make sense to try to limit parasites and some threats to health, same as on Earth.


The size of the human population must not be too small due to the risk of inbreeding depression. This can be positively influenced through the use of in-vitro fertilization from genetic stock for some of the children born to colonial families. Alternatively, immigration should provide variations to the genetic stock. Unless Earth is lost, immigration should always be available.


Increased exposure to radiation may increase the incidence of cancer. Colonists will need shielding from radiation during transport from Earth to Mars and on Mars' surface, due to the thin atmosphere and lack of a planetary magnetosphere.

Medical care

Compared with Earth, the limited industrial performance of an early autonomous colony does not allow the same level of medical care. Highly sophisticated accessories for surgery and a great variety of drugs will be difficult to produce. A reasonable attitude towards death du to certain medical conditions may be required. As long as trade is possible with Earth, some medical supplies are likely to come from the mother planet.

Low Gravity

As of 2022, no experiments on the International Space Station have studied the effect of Martian gravity on life. Thus it is unknown how badly Mars' gravity would effect humans. The page Low gravity discusses this in detail.

Opposition to an autonomous colony

  • There may be significant opposition to an autonomous settlement on Mars. Why waste resources on a barren world? The competition for the funds required will be high, and other projects may be more interesting for the population of Earth.
  • The requirements of an autonomous settlement may be too high for social acceptability.
  • The very logic of colonies may find opposition, particularly if some form of life is found on Mars.
  • Orbital settlements may offer a better path to settling space. Mars may remain marginal, or be superseded by orbital settlements if these prove more livable, particularly if partial gravity turns out to have serious health consequences.

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  1. Autonomous means able to exist independently or being independent in government. An approximation of the definition in Mirriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (c) 2003