How a Mars Colony Could Celebrate the Fourth of July with Fireworks

July 4th won't look the same on the red planet.

Two astronauts smiling and posing while celebrating the fourth of July in space

It’s unclear what allegiances Martian colonists of the future will hold, but whether they’re celebrating the Fourth of July]( or some other day of independence, you can pretty much Martians are going to want to celebrate something. And for that, they’re probably going to want to watch things explode in a colorful, fiery blaze in the sky.

For over a thousand years, humans have used fireworks as an integral part of many festivities. While there are many things the species will have to live without when it begins to expand to other worlds, fireworks probably won’t go quietly.

They won’t, however, work the same way. We’ve spent centuries perfecting the design of fireworks here on Earth so that they have the most bang for our buck. They’re specifically designed for Earth. The red planet, in case you haven’t learned yet, is a much different place than this here blue marble. To understand how a firework could operate on Mars, we have to first understand why it works here on Earth.

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It’s not really a hard design to understand. A firework is basically a concoction of two other types of pyrotechnics: the sparkler, and the firecracker A sparkler is a device that, well, does just that: sparkles, giving off a streaming flow of bright, crackling light. A firecracker, on the other hand, explodes, thanks to black powder (a.k.a. gunpowder) or flash powder. Those two powders have different chemical compositions, but the result is basically a thing that goes boom, and gives off a flash and a bang.

The key ingredients for a sparkler are:

  • a fuel which can be lit (the black powder or flash powder)
  • an oxidizer, which a fuel requires to burn
  • a metal which will provide the colorful glow (e.g. copper burns green, lithium burns red, etc.)

A firecracker basically tacks on a neatly-packaged bursting charge (the thing that makes everything go ka-blooey) and a fuse to this design. When you combine those two concepts together along with a lifting charge that sends it flying into the sky, you get your aerial firework — an explosive display of vivid, shimmering light, initiated by an instantaneous eruption, and lasting a few seconds before fading off into the dark.

Mars as seen in 2008.

Getty Images / ESA

There are various modifications to this design that explain why some fireworks operate differently — the shell may be designed to break multiple times, creating multiple bursts of light. But overall, this is what a standard firework looks like.

So how would this work on Mars. Well, there’s two critical differences. The first has to to do with the Martian gravity — at one-third the mass of Earth, Mars will not hold objects down as harshly as our own planet might. If you take a single firework and launch it in the air on both the blue planet and the red planet, it will go much higher up on Mars.

This is useful because it allows people to use less propulsion material to launch the firework up — saving resources — but it also means you have to fine tune the process such that a firework won’t go way too up high. Still, this is minor problem to contend with compared to the next obstacle.

Because the most limiting factor to fireworks on Mars will be the presence of an oxidizer. On this planet, the single best oxidizer which help burn the fuel up is — you might have guessed — oxygen. Earth’s atmosphere is made of 20.95 percent oxygen. On Mars, that percentage is shot to just 0.146 percent.

We’re not going to have that luxurious abundance of oxygen on Mars, so we’ll need other oxidizers to mix with the fuel. This means favoring flash powder over black powder. Flash powder can be lit through a strong oxidizer like potassium chlorate. There are also plenty other fuel-oxidizer mixes to pick from, but the point is, you’l need to move away from relying on oxygen.

There’s just one other problem: the temperatures on Mars. At room temperature, for example potassium chlorate will appear as a powder or white crystal, but temperatures on Mars drift between -153 degrees Celsius and 20 degrees Celsius. In addition, if you remember your chemistry and physics courses, you’ll remember that pressure impacts temperatures as well.

Anyone who’s developing fireworks on Mars will need to take all of this into account, and better understand what kind of fuel-oxidizer combinations to use to make a firework explode as it should in the Martian skies. It’s doubtful one will be able to rely on the atmosphere itself as a good oxidizer, so it comes down to also designing a firework which is capable of mixing a solid oxidizer with a fuel source in the middle of the sky as it should.

What’s that supposed to look like? Well, with engineers working on the whole, you know, getting to Mars problem first, that’s probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. Let’s give it another couple decades before we start prodding our best and brightest minds to give us a Martian firework.

This article was originally published on June 27, 2017.

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