Pulling water and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere might be easier than trying to source it from the soil, said Hoffman, who is the deputy principal investigator for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. The experiment is the first of its kind to test whether life-sustaining products can be extracted from Mars. The instrument is planned for NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission and is designed to split the carbon dioxide molecules in the Red Planet's atmosphere into carbon and oxygen.
"The nice thing about using the atmosphere is that you don't need a whole mining infrastructure," Hoffman said.
"I mean, we're struggling now with running MOXIE, which has very few moving parts except for a compressor," he said. "To set up a real mining operation with robotic excavators and all of the other processing that you need, and have that running completely autonomously, is a huge challenge."
That's why eventually establishing a colony of humans on Mars is important.
"The advantage of having people is that people are capable of responding to situations that were not anticipated," said Mark Jernigan of NASA. "People can understand the situation and adapt as needed, and they also have the ability, that when failures occur, to use resources that were not originally anticipated in order to solve the problem."
But the kinds of people who ultimately go to Mars may surprise you.
"You have to have a lot of people with a diverse, less-specialized array of skills to go to Mars," Kirkpatrick said. "In other words, average people that have to be able to support this large diverse economy," he said.
Just as the infrastructure may draw from simpler times, so, too, may the population. A Mars colony will likely have a greenhouse, for example. People will need to understand farming, as well as biology and pest control.
"When you're talking about trying to survive on the surface of Mars, the level of skills that you need are so much broader," Jernigan said.
People will need to adapt to local conditions and make use of resources in ways that were not planned.
"We will need a lot of MacGyvers out there," Jernigan said.
You can follow Tracy Staedter at her website and @tracy_staedter. Original article on Space.com.