Semi-autonomous colony

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A semi autonomous colony on Mars lives basically on its own production of energy, food and air, provided by imported technology from Earth. All vital systems are lo-tech and can be maintained from local resources. Additional goods are regularly imported from Earth:

  • Complicated medical equipment
  • Drugs for medical treatment
  • Luxury foods
  • Non-vital hi-tech equipment (e.g. computers)

As part of a colonization strategy it may be an advanced step in the colonization program.

Limitations of shipping

Shipping to Mars with current launcher technology is expensive. Cheaper commercial launchers must be developed if continued shipping is to be a reality. Although landing large payloads on the surface is difficult, this could be done with technology designed for the original construction of the colony. The limitations on shipping, however, mean that any large settlement will be fairly close to an autonomous colony.

What if support from Earth stops?

If the shipments were to stop, the colony might be able to sustain itself for some time, based upon the lo-tech equipment. Some people might then choose to return to Earth if space access was possible. However, without access to Earth, the colony might simply fail. The minimum size of a viable settlement is unknown, but it might be quite large.

As an alternative to a low tech society, a reasonable precaution would be for the settlement to stock a strategic amount of supplies of essential elements or equipment. The stockpile should be sufficient for the settlement to have the time required to develop local sources for the supplies. For example, digging for cobalt on Mars might be uneconomical compared to shipping from Earth. But if shipping from Earth stops, the settlement would develop local mines, whatever the cost, as they would become essential. This way a higher technology settlement could be maintained.

Minimum viable population

What is the minimum population on Mars that can maintain a high enough technology to live indefinitely with only local resources? This is highly dependent on the available technology, however some studies have been made in the similar case of generation ships for Interstellar travel and others have proposed values. As a society becomes more and more technological, the required population get higher and higher. However, eventually technology reaches the point it becomes capable of self replication (Frietas and others). At that point the required population falls to zero, since humans are no longer required. Semi autonomous technological replication provides numbers anywhere in between the huge values of modern society and zero.

  • Genetically, studies have shown that starting with sufficient diversity, the minimum viable genetic population is about one hundred individuals
  • Statistical analysis Cameron Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon, proposed a minimum of 14 000 people, with a safer value of 40 000 in 2014 He brought this down to 4 000 in a 2020 paper (references).
  • Aurora, Kim Stankey Robinson Robinson, for his novel, Robinson showed a population of about 10 000 failing at maintaining a viable technological society and having to return to Earth.
  • Elon Musk has proposed a target of one million people for a self sustaining civilisation.
  • Michael Cain has proposed three to five million people as a minimum number.[1]

Other expect the required population to be several tens if not hundreds of millions. [2][3]