Mars Settlement Likely by 2050 Says Expert – But Not at Levels Predicted by Elon Musk

Mars Colony Illustration

Artist’s impression of what a colony on Mars could look like.

UNSW’s Professor Serkan Saydam posits that the success of colonizing Mars by 2050 depends on the progress of autonomous robotic mining, primarily for water extraction and energy production. He underscores the importance of demand-driven technological advancement and suggests lunar colonization as a precursor to Mars.

Robotic mining that can provide water and fuel is the key to developing a colony on the red planet within the next 30 years.

Mars will be colonized by humans by the year 2050, as long as autonomous mining processes quickly become more commercially viable.

That’s the view of Professor Serkan Saydam from UNSW Sydney in the wake of the amazing landing on Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Perseverance is expected to provide answers about whether forms of life ever existed on the red planet, but it is also designed to help address the challenges of future human expeditions there.

Professor Saydam, from the School of Mineral Energy Resources Engineering, says the main focus in terms of creating a colony on Mars is finding water – and being able to extract it and process it using robots before humans land.

“Everything is all about water,” Prof. Saydam says. “You use water as a life support, plus also being able to separate out the hydrogen to use as an energy source.

“The process for having humans on Mars will be to set up operations, go there and produce water with robots first, and then be able to extract the hydrogen to make the energy ready before people arrive.

“Innovation in robotics and autonomous systems are clearly important so that we have the water ready and the hydrogen separated and ready for when human beings land.

“At the moment, we don’t have ability to do it. There are significant research efforts, specifically here at UNSW under ACSER (Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research), about the best way to do it, but there is no consensus yet. It also depends on how many people we expect to be living on Mars. Is it five, or 5000, or 50,000, or even more?”

Mars Perseverance Sol 23 Navcam

An image of the surface of Mars taken by the Perseverance Rover in March 2021. Credit: NASA

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has claimed he’s confident there will be a city of 1 million on Mars by 2050, transported there by 1000 Starships proposed by his SpaceX venture, with plans for up to three rocket launches per day.

Prof. Saydam says that may be unrealistic in the specific timeframe, but admits that demand for travel and a potential colonization of Mars is what’s needed to drive the technological developments required.

“I think the technology is ready and we already have the knowledge, but the main problem is having the focus,” says Prof. Saydam, who is organizing an International Future Mining Conference in December 2021 that will feature former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy and Honeybee Robotics vice-president Kris Zacny.

“It’s a bigger question: ‘Why don’t we do that already on earth? Why are we still using human beings for physical work in mining here?’ We have huge experience in mining, but still heavily depend on humans. 

“One issue is that demand is not there. For companies to get involved in developing products (for Mars missions), they need to be able to produce minerals or something that can be used for manufacturing goods and then sell it.

“At the moment, everything is just a cost and there is no revenue for companies.”

Mars Base Illustration

An artist’s impression of mining operations on Mars ahead of a potential colony of humans on the red planet.

However, that could be starting to change. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing who are heavily invested in the rockets used to launch spaceships, has publicly announced they will pay $500 per kilogram for fuel – derived from water – supplied on the moon. That rises to $3000 per kilogram if the fuel is available in a low-earth orbit.

“That immediately creates a market,” Prof. Saydam says. “Plus, if Elon Musk does what he says and puts people on the surface of Mars in 20 years, then that also creates a market.

“I believe a colony on Mars is going to happen, but between 2040 and 2050 is more feasible. This could be shortened depending on the technological advances that can reduce the costs or from stronger motivation.

“What I think will happen is that first of all we will do these activities on the moon and have a colony there. Then we can use the moon as a petrol station to get to Mars and beyond.

“But before 2050, I think we will have settlements on both the moon and Mars.”

33 Comments on "Mars Settlement Likely by 2050 Says Expert – But Not at Levels Predicted by Elon Musk"

  1. Philip Seabrook | March 19, 2021 at 12:12 pm | Reply

    “Beam me up, Scotty!”
    I’m hitchhike to the moon and Mars, when made available! Space travel, colonialism and evolution into space living. More then a welcoming feeling to know we don’t need to sit here on earth forever. Or even buried, next topic and evolutionary cell-growth and cloning. Hmmm? Anyone

  2. Ah no, except for maybe a handful of scientists, people won’t ever be living on the Moon, or on Mars, and for a long list of reasons.
    The number one problem is the lack of an atmosphere. People don’t do too well in a vacuum. That means nothing can be done outside without being inside a very expensive, dangerous, maintenance intensive, cumbersome, pressurized, climate controlled space suit. That means you would spend the vast majority of your life locked up inside a building. Pressurized vehicles are super expensive, and they break. You won’t have one to drive around for amusement.
    Virtually no water is the next problem. Few people appreciate how much fresh water they use at home, and how many trillions of gallons of clean water is used to manufacture goods and process food, every day. Not only is water extremely polluted and scarce on the Moon and Mars, but water has the unfortunate habit of expanding as it changes from a liquid to a solid. Just stopping water from breaking containers and pipes would require a massive amount of energy, because both planets are well below the freezing point of water.
    Human labor is expensive, yet robots do virtually nothing, even here on Earth, where people can repair them within hours of any malfunctions. That is because the technology to make a robot which can do much, doesn’t exist. Imagine trying to build a robot that could repair your broken car. If it happens, it will be decades away. And such a machine might never be possible. Watch some of the YouTube mechanics, and see what it takes to diagnose and repair the latest cars. It’s scary. And people think automated machines will be able to do complex work on Mars. What happens when the first part breaks? Good luck building a robot to fix stuff all by itself on another planet, when we can’t even do it right here on Earth.
    And there are numerous other problems, like having enough to eat. Pigs, sheep, chickens, and cattle are messy creatures. They produce a lot of waste every day, eat a lot too. Dealing with that inside won’t be a fun job. And a slaughterhouse uses a lot of clean water and electric power. So any Martians can forget fish and meat for a long time.
    And the cost to keep even a few thousand people alive on Mars would be in the tens of trillions of dollars. Where is that much money going to come from? Not from taxpayers, unless all politicians want to only serve a single term. Don’t run for office on that platform.
    The universe happens to be full of radiation from all those trillions of unshielded nuclear reactors called stars. Leave the magnetic field and thick atmosphere of Earth, and you will be exposed to that radiation all the time. That will mess up billions of your cell DNA and RNA, increasing your chances of getting cancer sooner than here. So be sure to bring some powerful pain killers along with you to Mars, since there are no factories to make anything there.
    Hope nothing major goes wrong on Earth, because if it does, and you are on Mars depending on food and everything else from Earth for the next few centuries, you’re dead out there. But maybe pesky pandemics and world wars will end.
    So better take care of Earth, because we are stuck here, probably until the Sun vaporizes it. We could go extinct, and the dinosaurs have time to make a comeback, before that happens. I’ll worry about that tomorrow.
    Finally, how do you think the Mars babies will turn out? Ready to experiment with that? Maybe just send older people.

    • Clyde Spencer | March 19, 2021 at 6:14 pm | Reply

      Yes, Musk and other optimists are overlooking a problem for which there is no solution currently — radiation! Even the round-trip will be fraught with danger, let alone staying on the surface of Mars for an extended period of time.

    • Bill, you are all right about what you said. I am really pro-science and for progress but it amazes me how some overenthousiastic people tend to overlook very basic facts and obstacles to keep their unrealistic dreams alive. For me it really seems to be the product of wrong analogic thinking. Look at the language and words used, colonisation is always mentioned. There is nothing to be colonised on Mars, spaceships are not boats and especially the space is not the ocean. Difficulties, risks, distances etc. are on an entirely different level if one goes to space to reach another planet compared to do whatever on Earth, including the craziest stunts possible here. To use another analogy instead of “colonisation”: even Moon is really just the backyard of our house compared to Mars. It’s like, “Hey I was able to go to my garden from the couch, next thing I climb Everest during winter, with no oxigen or water, maybe only one candybar. Good luck!

  3. For the amount of time you just spent typing up a list of reasons of why not, you could’ve done something more productive with your life… even opened up a Tax ID for something you are passionate about lol. On a serious note, humanity needs growth to survive. We may not end up on Mars, but we will learn a lot, so we can be able to end up on a planet with more sustainable development. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we manufacture a system to exploit the natural environment of Mars with climate changing actions learned from Earth. Let’s hope for this

    • Thank you for giving free coaching on what to do with my life. On a more serious note: have you ever thought about “growing” can have other meaning than expanding? The Earth was really a mature ecosystem when humanity appeared. In a very short time we managed to destroy it. We have all the ressources here but whatever we do, we just f*ck things up even more. How do you think we could make another place right which is 100 times more f*cked up than any place on Earth ever been? You can live with wishful thinking, but when you grow up, you will have to face reality.

    • Clyde Spencer | March 21, 2021 at 8:07 am | Reply

      There is concern among many that humans are degrading and possibly ‘destroying’ Earth. Yet, there are people like you who want to go to a place that is worse than any dystopian vision of Earth’s future. Mars is extremely cold, with unbreathable air, no water or food, and high background radiation that compares to Chernobyl or Fukushima. This strikes me as being schizophrenic. It certainly suggests that you haven’t given this a great deal of thought.

      • The funny thing is, I bet the vast majority of foolish comments on this board are from anti nuclear folks, and the irony of space travel is that only nuclear engines are every going to make a dent in the velocities required. But hey they can always hope for wormholes to pan out.

  4. The premise of this article is unrealistic. Mining in Mars? Commercial engagement of Mars? That’s centuries into the future – and that’s not that far off.

    Very best estimates – unlikely to be achieved, would allow for a Mars flyby missiion around 2041 – but at a cost of $160 billion. So reaching the surface by 2050 is just not going to happen. That’s just 30 year from now.

    Does anyone honestly think that we’ll have the capability to send people over to Mars, onto the surface and home again, in the same time frame as from 1990 to today?

    30 years is nothing in space – we would already have had to have cracked all the technical and logistical challenges that exist by now, have developed an economic model and be testing huge swathes of teh requires sytems at Mars – now – to be contemplating sending people onto the surface.

    As it stands, we’ll struggle to get people back onto the moon in the next ten years – a task easily 1/100th the complexity of getting people to Mars.

    But as said – the premise of this article is meaningless – there is no commercial agenda for Mars, the cost of getting people to the surface is at least half a trillion dollars, the world can’t afford it – and most of all – surveys in the US and Europe show – almost nobody sees human space flight as a priority – and overwhelmingly there is no public support for a humans to Mars mission! 50 years form now – and there will not be people on Mars.

  5. Dear Friends:
    We can make rain, mix gases, make soil. The metal in the photos display examples of reflective light. Thermometers, solar enerfery and the reverse of what occured in Texas, USA this February 2021, the reverse of energy as the Power, thermostat, and electric out put sent the Power sours and.Wind Turbines and Electric Pier and source and pier in reverse. Broken. No heat thermostat broken and the wind and power souring in a reverse function aginst the
    Normal pattern of the combined equipment. Billions of dollars worth of energy but no heat. Uninsulated turbines that.still ran.up power usage. Against warranty.

    If.not understood now you will not make it on Mars.
    Manufactured air, water and energy
    Like making rain clouds in containment.

    Much to learn!
    Elon musk basic principles of science, air , water, and land.
    My Father and.Brother, Uncle And Cousins and brother law worked I. Electrical contracting.

  6. Add on! Basic , part of it.
    The meter was or is broken..improperly manufactured. Consumer making purchase and manufacturer we thinkinking convenient to sell that the insulation on the wind mills and wiring piping improperly if at all insulated. For the.record warranty should cover this tremendous loss. Assume would the results be. It.could help Earth, Mars, Venus Nd More. As well as subterranian or surface mining.

  7. “At the moment everything is just a cost and there is no revenue for companies”.

    ^^^ this one sentence is the realization of what must change for our species to survive, and continue evolving. To constantly measure advancements on a monetary scale will be our undoing.

    • Clyde Spencer | March 21, 2021 at 8:19 am | Reply

      Money is to technology as calories are to a living organism. There is no such thing as a ‘free launch.’ There has to be both an incentive and a way to supply the resources when there is competitive demand for resources.

      Monkey Tree and Ian Fidel: It appears that you have been taken in by your socialist teachers and have not learned to think for yourself. You appear to live in a fantasy world where there are unicorns and perpetual motion machines. For fun, read the section in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” where the survivors of the B Ark decide to use leaves as money.

      • Thanks Clyde, insightful and witty comment. However this comment thread devolved very quickly, it is now like noise without meaning. Again, I am not against science, in the contrary, I am amazed by real achievement of science. But those believing science makes us omnipotent… It’s hybris. Maybe interstellar space voyage is possible, but it is definitevely will not happen in a tin can filled with explosives. And I don’t see any sign of of the necessary developments. Anybody noticed we still cannot properly fuel a handheld device? It’s been +- 30 years now…

  8. Anyone else not care of they die to radiation or don’t have access to the petty conveniences on Earth as long as they can get away from society?

  9. It’s all about the energy or the lack of on Mars.

    Every American is using about 10kW of primary energy every sec of their life most of it from fossil fuels. See “LLNL Energy flow graph” and read a free Physics book on energy “Without the hot air” by David MacKay.

    On the earth we also get the benefit of the atmosphere for air and cosmic radiation screening, we have the land and oceans for food and shelter.

    NASA has prototyped a “compact” nuclear reactor about the size of an industrial fridge that outputs a miserable 10kW of power, enough to power just one American on earth.

    To live on Mars would likely require probably 100 times as much energy as easy living on earth does just to cover all the impossible conditions of no useful atmoshere, no oceans, and a poisonous landscape.

    Science already did the experiment in the prev century, in AZ in a large biosphere project with a handful of people. A few days in, people were snuck in and out for medical issues. After some time the manmade environment fell apart. That was a $2B experiment that could not sustain a few people and it was on Earth with no Mars issues to deal with.

    When articals speak of making hydrogen from water to provide energy, the fools that write this nonsence don’t understand it takes far more energy to extract hydrogen than the hydrogen will ever give back. It is the same people that think we can live off just solar and wind energy without something called base load power. They should try living in an atmosphere where the air is only available when the sun shines or wind blows.

    • Terrible article for quoting Professor Serkan Saydam from UNSW Sydney without noting the laws of thermodynamics forbid a Moon or Mars colony powered by Hydrogen. Believing it could is believing in magical unicorns: Hydrogen at best is a low efficiency battery because it takes far more energy to extract hydrogen than the hydrogen will ever give back.

    • Hi John, where are all these realistic voices like yours? We have flat-Earth believers and similarly idiotic science-omnipotence believers. Very few can really understand there is a narrow and inconvenient path called reality.

  10. Ah It’s a All About The Money.
    Anyone, Everyone who is anybody WITH MONEY, it’s their monkey on their back.
    IF EVERYONE would STOP thinking about the goddamn money SO MANY THINGS could be achieved and we would be so far ahead.
    Which also means that IF anyone can actually colonize ANY planet, it would be about RAPING it for . . . The money.
    No one cares if it would actually save our planet, the ONLY ONE we have let alone saving lives.
    IF there is/are other life forms I’m sure their concern is about money but rather life/living.
    We, the human species are probably THE ONLY ONES who have not and will not move that way because of money. It would be about “who was there first and who owns it”. We are also, IF there are other life forms already traveling the galaxy, we are the ONLY ones in the UNIVERSE who has not accomplished it because of GREED. We cannot get over the asinine mentality of coming together as a whole to save, not just the people but the only damn planet we actually have to live and survive.
    WE are only hurting ourselves and the planet and fir what? If we continue, no matter how much money you have, YOU are going to die as well.
    IDIOTS. The same with nuclear weapons, if, as a country use them. What exactly are you going to rule when there is NOTHING LEFT????
    But what the hell, let’s destroy everything and see what that gets ANYONE??

  11. But then again. Most sheeple are so caught up in “reality” tv, and BS poop.
    Black market, human trafficking, DRUGS. And the idiot belief in organized religion.
    Should the world and its population be saved??
    We can’t fix what’s wrong on this beautiful earth and yet there are those that the event EXPLOITATION OF another will help. If we can’t help ourselves here and now how can we help ourselves then and there?
    Stop brainwashing the people, then maybe.

  12. Elon Musk Is A Different Species He doesn’t think like a homosapien,are we really surprised about his different opinion

  13. Christopher Ellis | March 21, 2021 at 6:11 am | Reply

    As if… enjoy living in the Void!

  14. Keep on dreaming boys. Good for digestion of more nonsense. Bu###hit baffles brains.

  15. F*ck la puberté

  16. A few years ago this kind of thinkers said…. Electric Cars? , impossible.. 30 years from now… Reusable rockets?.. Impossible… Never… And a lot more things that one man an his team achieve without this experts opinions…

    But… Nevertheless still have rights to say whatever they want… We all always respect that…

    • Electric cars existed in the very early days along with gas cars so were never impossible. They were quite frequently seen on roads. See Jay Leno. What killed them off was their battery tech, lead acid is about 4 times less energy dense than the Li ion battery and very heavy so very limited range. Once the modern laptops got Li ion battery into shape, modern EVs became practical so no conspiracy needed, just better material engineering. Just google for “energy density of materials” to see what the future holds or doesn’t hold for energy storage.

      As for reuseable rockets, that happened decades before Musk came along, it’s just that the control systems of 30-40 years ago were primitive so the self landing rockets of past always fell over or exploded in mid air so you never read about them.

      When engineers speak of what’s not possible, they are far more likely to be right, or at least pessimistic about rates of progress. While the artist crowd can just retort, well thats just your opinion and everything is possible.

      Take Startrek NG, we can say exactly what is and isn’t possible from that show, the producers could not predict the future too well. The medical advances will likely happen, Mr Data’s compute power and memory capacity is easily dwarfed by todays silicon, no positronic jiggery needed. His software though is not here yet, no reason why it couldn’t be developed though in decades. As for faster than light travel warp speed, transporters, replicators, thats just sheer fantasy but a very necessary plot device. All of those break the rules of physics.

      Knowing physics and engineering can be a real bummer when watching scifi movies, but even we can set aside the broken science.

      I grew up with the vacuum tubes everywhere. I have in front me a floor plan of a computer system with 250,000 processors and 1M threads which could be built with the same no of transisters in the Apple M1 laptop core module. Is it going to be built, no, because todays engineers are addicted to complex solution. This design would be understandable to every engineer from the 1960s. Not all inventions go forwards.

  17. Living in Mars needs instant fact analysis (I.f.a).When scientists starts reasoning in terms of billions of years then it’s a pity. I believe in working on what you get as it’s onwards not backwards as is the case.

  18. GHULAM MURTAZA | May 1, 2021 at 12:33 am | Reply

    First you take right path of this UNIVERSE and believe in one GOD.

  19. What they need to do is figure out how to get everyone out of poverty instead of fantasizing about space travel 2 Mars watching to many Star Trek pictures😇😇😇🤚🤚

  20. who published this document and who was the writer i am a student and we are doing an Semster Final for 8th Grade so I would like some info. HUGH PLEASE (·̿̿Ĺ̯̿̿·̿ ̿)

  21. I was wondering if you could answer some questions for a school project.

  22. I think that this was a very well thought out article. I do think that it will take humanity a long time to get a colony settled on the planet Mars. I’m sure that once we can create a sustainable amount of clean water and energy on Mars, Mankind will become more motivated and perceive that this might actually be possible. Then humanity will most likely devote many years of work and service towards the Colonization of Mars Project.

    I do love our planet Earth, because mostly all species of life flourish here. We have an abundant amount of water, oxygen, and plants to keep our atmosphere stable, and feed all species of life. I am very glad that God created us here on Earth, and we can choose to leave our home planet to expand our planetary limits.

    I myself, as a high school senior, am looking very much forward to my elderly years when colonization might be possible.

  23. Sam R England | March 15, 2023 at 8:44 pm | Reply

    When it comes to colonizing or settleing on Mars, there are NO “experts”!

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