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What’s the minimum number of people required for a sustainable Mars habitat?

Scientists are eagerly working on setting up a base on Mars, which is a significant milestone in our quest to explore the Red Planet. This bold mission includes creating living spaces, life support systems, and sustainable tech to support extended human stays, potentially leading to Mars colonization and enhancing our knowledge of alien landscapes.

A recent preprint paper delves into the investigation of the smallest group of individuals necessary to sustain a viable Mars settlement. This study takes into consideration psychological and behavioral aspects, especially in critical situations, to determine the optimal group size.

A deeper understanding is paramount

A group of data scientists from George Mason University conducted this study, which could offer valuable insights into the conditions necessary for a thriving Mars settlement, particularly concerning the interpersonal dynamics among settlers. But why is it crucial to gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aspects relevant to a potential Mars colony?

Dr. Anamaria Berea, an associate professor in George Mason University’s Computational & Data Sciences Department and a co-author of the research, emphasizes the importance of considering human behavior, both psychological and social, in designing habitats and future human settlements. She highlights that human behavior significantly influences the success or failure of missions, especially during extended missions where team dynamics play a vital role, even among highly trained astronauts who possess diverse personalities and interaction styles.

“We cannot think of any type of habitat or future human settlement without including human behavior, psychological or social. We humans are not robots, and even the best trained astronauts have different personalities and modes of interaction with each other and with their extreme environment. But on the long run and for long duration missions, team behavior is a crucial factor for the success or failure of a mission,” Dr. Anamaria Berea told Universe Today.

Also read: Is interstellar travel really possible or just a distant dream?

The study classified Mars settlers in four categories

In their research, the scientists employed an Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) approach to simulate the interactions among prospective Mars settlers, referred to as “agents” in the study. These agents encompass different personality types and skill levels essential for managing a Mars colony engaged in mineral mining. The four personality categories range from Agreeables to Socials, Reactives, and Neurotics, reflecting varying levels of aggressiveness and competitiveness. Furthermore, each agent’s skill level aligns with either management or engineering, contributing to the colony’s mining operations.

“A psychologically diverse population is more desirable,” Dr. Berea tells Universe Today. “In our paper, the ‘neurotics’ are actually needed for high-risk tasks; therefore, they are more likely to solve the problems in case of accidents, but also risk their lives. In the simulation, we start with equal percentages of psychological diversity, and then we see who survives in the system and who does not.”

The Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) approach zeroed in on how individuals of different personality types adapted to extended durations on Mars and responded to critical scenarios, including accidents involving resupply shuttles and habitat crises. It’s worth noting that the colony’s sustainability largely relies on two-year resupply missions from Earth.

In this study, the researchers aimed to tackle some fundamental questions. They sought to determine the essential conditions for sustaining a viable Mars colony, identify the most effective combinations of personality types for such a colony, and calculate the resources needed to support it, taking into account the two-year intervals between Earth resupply missions. They also factored in the possibility of occasional accidents occurring either during resupply missions or within the colony itself.

Also read: What makes dust swirl so quickly on the Moon without wind

So what’s the bare minimum number of people required?

As mentioned earlier, the simulated Mars colony in this research aimed for self-sufficiency, although it wasn’t entirely self-reliant. The colony depended on resupplies from Earth every two years to guarantee both immediate and long-term survival. While this study determined that a minimum colony population of 22 agents was optimal under the specified conditions, it raises the question of whether there exists a minimum population size that could render the colony entirely self-sustaining, eliminating the need for interactions with Earth or other off-Earth settlements, such as the Moon.

An instance of what seemed like a one-way journey to Mars occurred with the Dutch company Mars One. They put forward the idea of sending people to Mars with no return plan, aiming to create a lasting human presence on the Red Planet. This concept stirred up both excitement and severe skepticism, particularly because Mars One wasn’t an aerospace company and didn’t manufacture their own equipment. Despite multiple rounds of applications from eager Mars-bound candidates, Mars One filed for bankruptcy in 2019 without ever initiating a single mission.

This latest study builds upon previous research endeavors that aimed to calculate the minimum number of individuals needed to sustain a Mars colony. Earlier papers from 2001, 2003, and 2020 proposed minimum figures of 500, 100, and 110 people, respectively. However, if this most recent study’s findings hold true, indicating that a Mars colony could function with just 22 individuals, the question arises: how long after we begin sending humans to Mars will a potential colony actually reach this minimum of 22 people?

The journey to Mars and the minimum population needed for a sustainable colony remain uncertain. We’ll have to wait and see, and that’s precisely why we delve into the realms of science and exploration!

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.