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Life on Mars: A scientist ranks 10 futuristic depictions of human colonies

From domed cities to aliens: What would life on the Red Planet actually look like?

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Whether we’re exploring Mars or attempting to colonize it, futurists have some tantalizing visions of what our lives on the Red Planet could look like.

Imagine grandiose cities, flying vehicles, and plants growing from the otherwise barren ground.

Or is that all just an elaborate fantasy?

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NASA via Giphy

Inverse asked geophysicist Mika McKinnon, who’s been a science consultant for numerous sci-fi movies and TV shows, to help separate fact from fiction in futuristic Mars art.

Here are 10 depictions of human life on Mars, ranked for realism by McKinnon:

ESA via Giphy

10. Welcome to the bustling (domed) metropolis

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McKinnon says it appears this illustrated city was built in a sedimentary basin.

That’s not ideal.

“It's in a poor location, geologically speaking. You don't really like building on sediment if you can avoid it — it’s not very sturdy.”

— McKinnon

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Domes, however, would be a realistic solution for keeping out Martian dust storms —while making sure residents have air to breathe, McKinnon explains.

However, a tall dome with tall buildings that are roughly the same size doesn’t make for a very efficient design.

Rating: 5/10

Despite the unstable ground, domed cities make sense on Mars. The designers may just want to improve the architecture of the buildings inside.

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9. A quaint, single-family home on a sizeable plot of Martian land

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Resources are scarce on Mars. Preserving elements like air, water, and electricity is vital.

But this home in a dome is designed to do the complete opposite.

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McKinnon points out that the patch of greenery inside the dome doesn’t seem large enough to make it self-sustaining.

That means someone would need to regularly import oxygen so that the residents of the home could breathe.

“A single-family home is a terrible, terrible idea on Earth in terms of the environmental impact. But when you're talking on Mars, like, that is gratuitous.”

— McKinnon

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Rating: 2/10

It’s a wasteful display of wealth, McKinnon says — and not a likely solution for Martian housing. And why is the roof slanted? It’s not like there’s going to be rain.

8. A Star Wars-like city nestled in a valley

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This city is seemingly situated on sturdier ground, possibly in a lava field, McKinnon says.

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And the way it’s sealed up and doesn’t consist of freestanding buildings makes sense for a place where resource conservation and protection from the elements is of utmost importance.

Rating: 8/10

Compared to the domed cities and single-family home, McKinnon says this depiction is probably the most on par with what shelter on Mars could look like. But she does have one more idea...

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Instead of trying to be on the surface, builders should “go into the Martian caves, particularly into the lava tubes. Which I personally think looks way cooler,” McKinnon says. “But who am I to argue with Mars futurists?”

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7. Rockets launching simultaneously from a Martian base

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To McKinnon, this illustration may have a dark meaning behind it. “I think we’re watching the start of a Martian war,” she explains.

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The rockets don’t have boosters, meaning they’re likely for suborbital flight.

So why would there be this many suborbital rockets launching at once? Perhaps conflict, McKinnon says — which isn’t unreasonable when you’re on a resource-strapped planet.

“When you're already working on a planet with very, very few accessible resources, that is a really great way for everybody to die.

— McKinnon

NASA via Giphy

Rating: 3/10

Life on Mars is a “survive together or die alone” type of situation, McKinnon explains. Considering the size and shape of these rockets, she doesn’t see this as a depiction of a Mars exploration.

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6. A rocket on a launch pad, presumably about to take off?

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This might seem like a reasonable image of a rocket launch site, but there are a few things that don’t add up, McKinnon says.

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First of all, the rocket is too close to the people and other structures nearby to lift off without incinerating them.

Second, it lacks boosters, which means it wouldn’t be capable of making it to space.

“I would think [we’re] actually ... looking at a museum here. We're not looking at a launch site.”

— McKinnon

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Rating: 6/10

Though it’s likely not the right proportions for a launch site, McKinnon says this could be a museum display on Mars — perhaps to honor the first crew to touch down on the planet?

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5. Signs of life, growing out of a rock

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Unfortunately, most exposed plants on Mars would freeze, McKinnon points out.

There would also have to be nutrient-rich soil and water for this plant to grow — presumably from a river that had once run down the side of this cliff.

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Over time, that water flow would soften the ground — leaving this outcropping especially unstable.

“As a geoscientist who specializes in landslides specifically, you would never catch me going on that outcrop and putting weight on it. That is not a safe place to be.”

— McKinnon

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Rating: 4/10

The astronaut is at least wearing a spacesuit, but the plausibility of finding a plant in a location like this and not falling to your death is extremely slim.

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4. Ok, but could Mars have cacti?

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Devon Ko via Giphy

Cacti are experts at storing water — a feature that would actually make them more susceptible to death by freezing, thanks to the thin Martian atmosphere.

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But McKinnon notes that this astronaut’s helmet looks like it's lifted, suggesting they might be in an enclosed space where there’s oxygen.

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Currently, NASA’s Perseverance rover is attempting to create oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

If humans make it to Mars, it would make sense to set up an experimental site where we attempt to grow greenery.

Rating: 7/10

In a sealed experimental site, McKinnon says the existence of this cactus could be feasible. But it’ll likely come about at a later stage of humans living on Mars.

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3. A station on Mars, complete with solar panels and a rocket launch pad

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McKinnon says this base looks like a modular system — meaning it could be built in pieces as teams bring parts to Mars.

That’s how other structures, like the International Space Station, were built.

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But the one thing that’s missing?

Redundanciesextra copies of some of the essential buildings and solar panels in the event of a disaster.

“You want to have backups of anything that's absolutely critical ... [but] there’s no backup of the central hub. There's no backup of whatever the hell's in that geodesic dome.”

-McKinnon

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Rating: 9/10

The design of this Mars base is solid, but McKinnon says it could use extra supports.

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2. A basin filled with water on Mars

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While scientists are still on the hunt for liquid water on modern Mars, McKinnon says this valley doesn’t look too far off from what Mars may have looked like billions of years ago.

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Scientists predict Mars was once home to rivers and lakes that dried up over time.

It’s unlikely that liquid water exists on the surface today. However...

“In terms of modern Mars, one of the things we think might exist — and we're not sure yet — is that there might be subglacial lakes.

— McKinnon

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Rating: 10/10

If we’re time traveling, McKinnon says, this is a very accurate depiction of ancient Mars.

1. One day we’ll meet big green aliens on Mars ... right?

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If we come across alien life on Mars one day, it probably won’t look like this.

“To find actual, bipedal aliens wandering around in our solar system, we'd have to be seriously oblivious to have missed them at this point.”

-McKinnon

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Rating: 0/10

As an alien encounter, the chances of this image being reality are virtually none. But, McKinnon says, maybe this image is actually a tourist site depicting an encounter with aliens, real or fake. In that case, she’d give it a 6/10 for feasibility.

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