Exploring Life On Mars

“Three, Two, One, Expunge.” The lock releases, the lander detached from the spacecraft, heading toward Mars.

It all started, when a mad scientist really think that a lighthouse is a great idea for planetary exploration. A floating fortress measuring 300 meters tall, with several arms stretching up to 45 meters, weighing barely 815 kg, it’s a beast of planetary exploration. It had been designed for lightweight and robustness, to last for a thousand years before breaking down. The more high-tech the equipment, the less likely it’s going to last, as the complexity makes it breaks easily; and we can’t fix such high-precision equipment on Mars! Guess it’s computer? Yes, the analog computer, consists of gears. How about the radio signal, also generated by gears!

The descent was typical. Watch NASA and you’d know how it worked. About 300 km before hitting ground, the lighthouse detached the heat shield, extending its arms outward. Blades, attached at the end of the arms, started turning with wind gustling through. At sufficient speed, the battery boost its speed up even further. Eventually, the lighthouse hovers at a height of 1.5 km above ground.

Alas, the battery don’t last long. We need electrical charges a.s.a.p. Luckily, the mad scientist had thought of this. Solar panel requires maintenance, and dust would cover it up quickly; it could be used as a backup. Wind? Not really, we can’t be sure there is constant wind; we’re not on Jupiter. Luckily, the mad scientist found some heuristics: the ability to harnesses energy via difference in potential difference in planetary height. They tried it on Earth, sending hot air balloons with electrodes up several hundred meters into the air, attached via a copper wire to the end of a motor, and closed the connection by grounding it. It worked on Earth, it could work on Mars.

With electricity crisis out of the question, it’s time to search for sign of life, present or past. Oxygen isn’t necessarily required, we can’t disprove the existence of anaerobic species. Similarly for water; but let’s just assume that water is required; for we used to live in water before living on land. If martian surface is cold, we can find ice on top; but we’d like to find underground lakes, several hundred meters beneath the surface. Luckily, several tools are fitted on the tip of the lighthouse, among them the water-scanner. The water-scanner emanates a waveform that could penetrate Martian soil, up to working distance of 300 meters (from the surface of Martian soil, ignoring air in between lighthouse and ground). Upon hitting water, it’ll reflect the wave. Making sure the lighthouse didn’t leave the magnetic region of Mars, a 5 years search started. The mad scientist was invigorated! What’s more, we have a surface mine of iron ore nearby the site.

The next thing is to search for underground cavern. We want to create a base for exploration, preferably not a floating one. An underground cavern next to a lake is like beaches next to the sea. You’d build ports, and a town where sailors could replenish their supplies. If there are none, we could just make an artificial underground cavern. Luckily, the site where we dig down, 15 meters from the lake, comes with a small cavern; saves us time.

If there are no water source that refill, lakes eventually dries up. Perhaps there might be geyser down, we don’t know. What we can do is reduce evaporation. The rocks that covers up the lake aren’t porous -- they minimize evaporation. For a close system, we can even see clouds forming near the ceiling, averaged 30 meters above the lake surface. Our drill site will be the main escape site for existing clouds and future water vapor. We want to close it up. It’s time for our bulldozer and drill to scrape some iron ore, send them to our 3D printer on board the lighthouse, to make contracted door and walls, extended upon delivering to where it should be. The door opens horizontally, facing the lake; and we could close the hole on the ground as well, but no, we’ll leave that open for ease of entering and leaving the hole. Plus, it would make our elevator more difficult down, if we need to build something more complicated.

We don’t know if there are creatures in the sea. However, the mad scientists already thought of that. We’ll send a small ship, built on Earth, equipped with ultrasound for bathymetry, cameras (including one underwater, all infrared), and several high-intensity (high-lux) lamp facing several direction (which don’t always turn on unless necessary, to save electricity; similarly for other equipments). The ship is equipped with its own batteries to power its motors, recharged back at the port. Unfortunately, we don’t find copper ore and no copper refinery on the lighthouse, so we can’t 3D print an extra long wire that connects the boat directly to the power relay at our base, which is connected to the lighthouse. The battery ultimately have limited power before it needs to return, limiting its range of exploration and equipment use. Other more fragile equipment, like those used to test the water, are limited. We have pH papers, yes; and we have a bucket to collect water, but not equipment to analyze it. The samples could be sent to lighthouse for basic analysis, though, as we have a camera attached to the end of a low-multiplication microscope, the image could be sent back to Earth.

For more detailed analysis, the sample will have to travel back to Earth. Here is another place where the iron ore comes handy. We don’t build return pods due to weight concern, but we could 3D print return pods. The return pods encase the water samples, stored in limited plastic tubes (glass is too fragile). However, we can’t be sure the sample we send back to Earth is valid. Temperature change transporting it from the ground to the surface, and heat loss is not preventable, for the mad scientists didn’t load heat blankets to encase the plastics, again, for weight concerns. This means some bacteria might have died out, and the content might have changed. Even if we finished building the pod before transporting the water, it would take some time to reach from the lake to the pod, and the pod itself is metallic (which means heat loss is quick). It’s not stored in vacuum, we don’t have the equipment to do so. Nor could we release the air when the pod reach space, for the difference in atmospheric pressure, we cannot ensure the plastic would not break. See, it’s not made of expensive material, but cheap stuffs. Though we have a heat shield, we can’t be sure it won’t reach boiling point inside the transport pod, boiling the water. The plastic can sustain boiling water, though, but isn’t comparable with melting point of glass. Even with such limitations, we decide the send the water sample back to Earth.

The return pod are launched from the top of the lighthouse, beaming to the satellite above (still remember the “thingy” where lighthouse detach/expunge from? That’s the satellite in space). Upon receiving the landing pod, the satellite will change its course, targeting Earth, before launching the pod again. It’ll take some time before the pod arrive at Earth with its ionic thrusters. The landing and retrieval of water samples isn’t worth the story. We did it lots of time, just check NASA and other space agency stories.

Living creatures is a possibility. They lure deeps beneath the lake, like the sighted but not camera-ed loch ness. Oh, we could test the oxygen levels; no we can’t, we didn’t load the chemicals and equipment to do the testing, not even on lighthouse. Furthermore, we can’t be sure that they’d preserve their chemical composition upon reentry, for weight concerns means none are stored in closed system. Limited heat can spread from the heat shield into the lighthouse upon reentry. We’ll just assume there are monsters, large or small, and capable of digging through martian soil. We need to build an albeit closed system.

First, all 6 sides would be closed with metal plates. Though, at the top of the side facing the lake, we would have porous metal bars, criss-crossed fences. A hole would be made in the middle, so any vehicles (primarily boats) entering and leaving would drive itself onto the elevator, transferred up, before lowered down on the other side. Two 3D printed magnetic beam weapons face the lake. These weapons fired beams, which only works in air, and greatly weakened upon entering water. Beams do get dispersed and reflected much more in water than in air. We also have weapons facing inside, in case the unknown beast could bite through the plates and enter the base; these weapons will be left to the imagination of the readers, considering its strength, ability to turn quickly in small space, physical or laser, etc.

The metal plates and metal bars, of course, are also 3D printed. Lots of 3D printing that take lots of time. To secure the base, screwing isn’t enough, for a large force can move them. Even a heavy-weighted fence can be moved by a large force, even for a short distance. Therefore, we need piling. Before raising the fences, holes were drilled deep into the ground, before pilings are lowered. These pilings are 15 meters in length, with cavity in the top 3 meters. When the fence are fitted to its position, metal bars located inside the metal fence are pushed down to fill these cavities, therefore joining them to the pilings. Optional screws could be used to screw these metal bars to the pilings. Pilings aren’t just drilled “down”, but also left and right, 3 directions. We don’t do it “up”, because gravity falls down. Pilings aren’t just located at the gate area, but also other places, except they aren’t locked; just to ensure the floor can withstand heavy weight without sinking.

The battle scene will be left to the reader’s imagination. Assuming there are huge loch ness monsters attacking the base, the firing of the cannot, the hitting of monster’s body against the gate, the trembling felt. That’s not all! Consider there are monsters digging its way from underground, biting through the metal plates, and internal weapons firing at them before they destroy the magnetic beam cannons. The mess they left with after they left, the reparation process, time and energy it took, and checking whether equipments in the base damaged, what can or can’t be repaired. The feedback it give on how to upgrade the barriers and floor (thicker floors? Or maybe of other materials, if we find another mine?)

With our base built, we can finally turn to exploration. The lake is huge, and a boat based on its base can’t go too far, however large and strong one’s battery is. Communication is another problem. Even if we disregard the stalactite matrices, acting as barrier for radio wave penetration, we need to consider the weakness of radio wave emitted from the ship (to save energy), the dissipation of directed radio wave energy (unfortunately, it’s not laser, but conical, in case we suddenly misaligns), hence its range. We want to connect, at each point, relay station. The relay station gets its energy via iron ore wires (we still don’t have copper, sorry; and energy beaming is a little high tech, which we could do if you have any good idea at such distance). Each relay station consist of communication channel, capable of receiving radio signals from the boat and transfer them back to the base, hence lighthouse, satellite, and back at Earth. The relay station also acts as a charging station, where the boat could charge itself. Since the transfer of energy is weak, we need good batteries that dissipate slowly, to counter against the inefficiency of iron ore wires transferring electricity. Finally, the boat could temporarily put its resources on the relay, and the base can send a container boat (built without a camera, only runs along a certain predefined path, solely to pick up stuffs left by the explorer boat) to return to the base. Storage boat are easier than conveyor belt, for energy considerations, and the monsters occasionally attack these equipments, for they aren’t protected by weapons, and have to be occasionally repaired.

The discovery of martian life marks a successful project for the mad scientist. While communication takes long, the mad scientist actually treat it as a game, if you ever played Oxygen Not Included before. Except, the game is slow to respond, and only simple-enough instructions can be executed. He cannot know if there are martian storms that might destroy the lighthouse, or other factors that requires the lighthouse to detach from the base and temporarily run for its life. He can’t know, whether he’ll find water on Mars. Overall, it was satisfying, and perhaps, even after his death, his successors could benefit from such mission, for human touch feet on Mars, in the optimistic phase, would be centuries to come. Until then, durable exploration devices like the lighthouse outperform all other 3-year-lifetime rovers.


  • This story is fictitious!!!

  • Alas, robust, not antifragile. Antifragile requires some deep thinking of how to implement it; which one haven’t do it yet, if it’s possible.

  • Though, one isn’t sure if this has something to do with magnetic field or not. For every 1 meter in height, you gain +100V of potential difference on Earth; that probably isn’t true on Mars. Second, if you google, you’d find out that only half of Mars have magnetic field; and whether this magnetic field flips to the other side, or moves with time, one don’t know. Plus, +100V sounds a lot; but it actually isn’t, because power is voltage * ampere, and ampere is small, despite high voltage.

  • The numbers here have no meaning. They’re mostly made up. As this is fiction, so are the technologies fictitious.

  • As if we’re playing Oxygen Not Included. Yeah, oxygen problem solved. The first time you played too long, you’d face the “out of algae” problem, then only you look at the electrolyzer. Then, you’d face “out of coal” problem, then only you start thinking how to save electric with energy-saving batteries, and smart batteries to turn the generator on and off. Then, you need to solve the happiness problem where your people get too stress when you put too many ugly stuffs where they go. Then, you need to solve the food problem, because dirt will also run out, like algae. That means plantation. Then, you need to solve the temperature problem, because most edible plants can’t grow beyond a certain temperature! Oof! This is lots of trial and errors before you learn how to get it work.

    • Psst: If planets don’t have enough water, you need “water rocket” to transport water from time to time. One could do auto control with the interplanetary package launcher, but that requires lots of radbolts, and crazy setups.
  • It’s like bathymetry using ultrasound fitted on ships!

  • Don’t ask me how we 3D print magnetic weapons, nor did magnetic weapons exist. As for the beams, you could treat them as light beams, if you learned about reflection, refraction, and probably light dispersion. Liquid particles are more concentrated than air particles, that’s why laser can’t maintain too long a distance in liquid, as compared with air.

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