Category Archives: Project: Mars

Posts and materials about Project: Mars

Project: Mars

Project: Mars is the more generic name for a podcast concept that I came up with which is loosely modeled on This American Life.  Essentially, what I would like to do is explore the every day life of the lower to middle class person living in a city on Mars.   To do this successfully, I feel as though I need to start with a realistic setting.  For that reason, I plan on modeling out an entire martian city of 2.9 million people.  The city was originally a colony designed to house about 10,000 settlers, but over time had grown beyond the capacity of its original colony plan.  What compromises did the settlers make to allow for added population?  How do you plan cities on Mars? What are the civil engineering challenges?  These are all questions that I hope to find answers to as I explore the topic.

Of course, none of this has started yet… what you see here is a very humble beginning… and I decided to start with this image of Mars at sunset.

Project MarsWhat I imagine a sunset on Mars to look like from orbit. Sorry about the lens flare.

It’s been a while since I create an image exclusively in the GIMP.  There’s something satisfying about taking a bunch of 2D tools on a 2D canvas and ending up with something 3D.   The image to the left extensively uses the Plasma Cloud render filter, Lens Distortion Filter, some creative use of layer modes (additive, multiply, screen, etc), and of course the Lens Flare.

Renders from Mars

I’ve started to put some thought into where the martian city is to be located.  To do that, I need to study a little bit on martian martian topology.  It turns out that we have some raw data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter.  Yeah, I know it’s really not raw data… who knows what the MOLA instrumentation spits out, but it’s raw for me.

The data is available in a number of resolutions and is packed neatly enough in files containing signed 16-bit integers… Well, I just needed to put the data into an image format. Easy peasy right? It took me a few tries…

My first attempt was with PHP through its libgd .  Unfortunately, i found no easy way to produce a 24-bit greyscale image… so I ended up with something that looked pretty blah.  My next stab at it was through Java… the thing about this was… I was too lazy to read up on exactly how to read a signed short from a file, so I tried this:

int msb =;
int lsb =;
int value = msb * 256 + lsb;

As it turned out, this process doesn’t retain the signedness of the 16-bit value…  So after digging a little I came up with the right solution:

DataInputStream dataStream = new DataInputStream(inputStream);
int value = dataStream.readShort();

I had to mess with the contrast a little, but in the end I got what i wanted… topology of mars rendered as images… check it out:

This image is some kind of ridge.  There’s clearly a drop off in altitude into smoother, less cratered terrain.

This image reminds me a lot of the moon.  It’s pretty amazing that the martian atmosphere really doesn’t protect it much from the pocking of meteorite impacts… or at the very least it doesn’t cover it up over time like here on Earth.

This looks like some kind of insane canyon system.  It starts out pretty solid on the right side of the image, but turns into a complex spiderweb of cracks and crevices as it moves to the left.

Having the actual raw data will enable me to create cool height maps in Blender.  Looking forward to creating little flight videos through there.  I bet it’ll be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!

Heightmap woes

I started toying with converting some of the mars bitmaps into height maps.

Here is my first render… This is that crazy canyon formation (called the Valles Marineris) that I mentioned in the previous post… and I believe that’s Olympus Mons in the distance.

You can see right off the bat that there are a ton of random issues with this image.  The most troubling for me, though was the very prominent aliasing.  Now, I’m working from a 24-bit png… so i had assumed that aliasing wouldn’t be such a huge problem.   For those of you not familiar with Aliasing, click on the thumbnail to the left and look for what look like ugly topology lines in the flat surfaces.  Those should in fact be smooth.  It’ll take a little more monkeying with the settings to get a satisfactory image…

Here is a section of the height map that’s visible in the rendering:

If you click on this image, you’ll totally see the color change lines that cause my aliasing issue.  I’ll probably need to dip into higher resolution images… those will have “rougher” grain and should alias a lot less…

Entering Space

It was clear to me from the inception of Project: Mars that I’d need to do a lot of research. In order to get down into the nitty gritty of what I want to write/record/produce, I need to come up with a mythology for the world I’m about to create; ostensibly the world we as a race will create in about 150 to 200 years.

My goal with reading this is to understand the problems of current space flight so that I can come up with a plausible history.  Whatever humble beginnings lead to colonization of Mars will dramatically affect the culture there.

At about 50 pages into the book, I’m very impressed with the technical details and frank opinions expressed by the author, Robert Zubrin.  While I get that there are far more complex issues involved with manned space flight than I’ll ever fully understand… I think that this book will provide me with what I need to spin a story about early mars habitation and the pioneers who dared to have the right stuff to do it.

When I’m done, I’ll have a full review of the book over at I Smell Sheep at some point.  Look out for it!

A Case for Mars

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote a post about Robert Zubrin‘s book Entering Space.  My full review (although admittedly kinda terse) went up today on the I Smell Sheep review blog.  It was a pretty good read… and added a lot of insight into what the history/mythology of the Project: Mars setting.

Even though, this book was written *AFTER* the book I’m currently reading… I am glad that I picked up the books in the order that I did.  A Case for Mars is a far more in depth (not to mention thicker) book than Entering Space and it concentrates heavily on the early settlement of the Red Planet.

One of the most interesting bits that I hadn’t considered as far as my podcast concept goes… is, Mars is likely to be over 100 years into a terraforming process.

In a LOT of science fiction, we constantly hear about terraforming being a process that takes centuries.  According to this book, a huge chunk of the process of converting Mars into something habitable by Earth life could take place in as little as 50 years.  By the time of the podcast, Mars’s atmosphere will be about the same as Earth’s as far as temperature and pressure go; though still unbreathable to humans. (We’ll have to walk around with breathing aparati).  That’s pretty amazing…  No need for pressure suits… that’s HUGE.

Once I’m done with this reading, I’ve got to look over some of the most recent findings about the planet… specifically around underground water.  A location near or on top of a large underground water table will be the best spot for a settlement… and once I have a location, well… then the fun begins :)


Martian Census Data

It’s been a while since I posted anything about Project: Mars, so here we go…

A subtle but very important aspect of any fictional culture is its population.  Specifically the census of age, gender and point of origin.  I see Martian culture to be an interesting conflict of old world (from Earth) ways of life with new world (born on Mars) burgeoning tradition.  To see just how much this affects the story, I needed some data… so it was off to the drawing board to model some population growth.

To the right, you can see a graph of population growth over time.  The population represented here has two components (which I should have broken out, but didn’t), an immigrant part and a birthrate part.  The immigrant portion of the population growth starts out modest and grows slowly over time.  I simulated this with a logarithmic increase.  The birthrate portion of the population represents actual births on Mars.  This population is of particular interest to me because they represent the specific culture that I want to study.  The population of Mars-born Martians grows exponentially; a lot like a compounded interest problem.  You can see from the graph, we have a healthy concave up growth curve.

I had put the setting of this fiction about 250 years after the founding of the principal city (yet unnamed).  After simulating 250 years, I ended with some interesting numbers… almost exactly 50% of the population at this point in time was born on Mars and the other 50 percent originated from Earth.   I need to play with the simulation to have a more realistic age distribution… at the moment, I assume that medicine has advanced to the point where old age is no longer a fatal condition, so a histogram of counts by age will look unrealistically flat.

Another liberty that I took with the simulation was with gender.  I assumed that the initial population would be male-heavy… which I set at 70% male.  Subsequent immigration, I slanted a little bit less male (65%).  To make things a bit more interesting, I assumed that natural birthrate on Mars would skew female, so 55% of children born on mars would be girls.  Let’s take a look at how this pans out…

At year 250, we can see that all surviving people from Earth are totally skewed male.  There are basically 2 men for every 1 woman.  I could see how this would amount to some extreme competition and drama as men vie over the extreme scarcity of a mate.  It could very well be that we see huge campaigns encouraging more women to head off to Mars… cuz, Mars Needs Women!

On the flip side of the coin, when we look at native born Martians, we see that women outnumber men.  Of course, the gender difference won’t equal out to near 50/50 for probably another 50 years based on the simulation… but it’s clear to me that earth men will end up pairing up with martian women more often than not.

I’m sure that there will be quite a lot of angst over the preferences of martian vs earth partners just as we see race preferences in online dating today.

Even with this limited simulation I can already see interesting drama unfolding in this Martian city!

Naive City Planning

In order to make a realistic city of 240,000 people, I wanted to go back to the very beginnings of the city, all the way back to its first founding.  In my mythology, 250 years before the podcast takes place, we find an ambitious but somewhat artificial plan to start the first for real human city on Mars.  It can comfortably house about 10,000 people and will represent the pinnacle of human achievement.  As for the year this happens relative to today? I’m not really sure… maybe 2060? 2070?

I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about actual Civil Engineering, but here’s my first stab at an initial city layout.  The areas scribbled off are further away from the settlement than would fit on the image.  One thing that I wanted to capture here was relative scale as far as quantity of a particular type of construction.  One thing to note, though, even though Agriculture is, by far the largest area… I’m pretty sure that this colony will still have to import food from Earth.  I’ll do a bit more research and figure out just what the square footage of farmland is required per person.  Also, In case you’re wondering, Education is lumped into “Administrative” in this diagram.  I should call that out as a separate thing later…  There’s little doubt in my mind that I’ll end up changing how this looks as I do more research… still, it’s a lot of fun to kind of play SimCity on Mars.

The construction of the buildings in question will all be primarily brick, as Robert Zubrin suggests in A Case for Mars.  A big thing to consider though is air pressure… The atmospheric pressure on mars is about 0.087 psi… here on earth, we’re used to having 14.69 psi.  That’s a pretty serious amount of force due to pressure being applied on the walls from the inside…The buildings here will have two layers to help reduce the strain on the walls due to the pressure difference between inside and outside.

You can see in this diagram, there will be a thicker outer wall which will be the primary barrier to the outside… a gap (enough for someone to comfortably walk) and then a thinner inner wall.  Inside will be completely pressurized and heated.  The intermediate gap won’t be heated and will be only partially pressurized.

The reason why I’m bringing up this point… is well, It affects the architecture… and architecture affects culture… and culture is exactly what I’m trying to capture here.

Martian Neo-Roman Architecture

As I mentioned in my previous Mars related blog post, it’s likely that the first settlement on the Red Planet will be made of bricks.  So what will these early structures look like?  Zubrin‘s suggestion that early brick martian buildings inherit flavors of old Roman Architecture really resonated with me… so I thought I’d use that as a basis for building design.  It’ll be a while before I come up with the right mix of modernity with the old school ancient imperial arched/pillared look.

I think that a major contrast between actual Roman design and what will be Martian neo-roman architecture is… Romans liked their plans open air.  This was a necessity back in the day because there was no air conditioning.  On Mars, however, everything, at least at first, needs to be walled off and pressurized.

To the left you see a quick drawing of what might be one of the administrative structures in my city plan.  The archways are just really just decorative.  If they went all the way into the building, they’d end up having two layers of thick glass, as each of the buildings themselves would be double-walled to help deal with the pressure difference between inside and the outside atmosphere.

As the first permanent structures built on Mars for habitation, these buildings will no doubt be considered hallowed historical monuments in the time the podcast takes place.  To that end, I don’t mind the buildings themselves taking on more of an over-the-top feel to them rather than simply the bare essentials that a for real initial settlement on mars might put up.

Most travel between buildings will occur through pressurized tunnels, not through doors in the buildings themselves.  Elaborate airlocks would need to be built which safeguards the inside air.

Another important structure, pictured to the right will be the green house.  Here we have a very primitive rendering of the inside of a martian vineyard.

Massive tracts of greenhouses will have to be dedicated to simply producing enough food for the population, however certain goods like wine can be produced for trade back to Earth.   These novel, fairly high margin items are necessary because, at least for the first couple of generations, any colony on mars will be very dependent on the mother planet, both practically and culturally.

From this initial colony plan, I think that the building designs will necessarily deviate from the original roman influence into something unique.