I thought I’d go with a bit of a fun question to ponder for today’s space exploration post. How will future Martian colonists get around the red planet?
Here on Earth, we have numerous ways to travel. We have planes, helicopters, highways, boats… Mars has nothing. While I am certain that Mars will be colonized eventually, I doubt that nations here on Earth will be so amiable by then that they will want to set all their colonists down in one spot. This will inevitably lead to a number of Martian settlements scattered about the planet. Further considerations like a desire to have settlements near the poles to gather water or the desire of to be nearer to the equator with its slightly warmer temperatures and more convenient launch vectors must also be taken into account.
Mars-to-Mars transportation faces a number of obstacles. I imagine that most permanent Martian settlements will be primarily situated underground to protect Martians from the high levels of solar radiation which would be beating down on surface settlements. Also, the presence of dust storms which can last variably long durations could make air travel both hazardous and inconsistent. However, air travel is also an attractive option since the planet’s thin atmosphere and low amounts of gravity could make air travel a lot more fuel-efficient than it is on Earth, although the low air density may also cause problems in terms of generating lift (I’ll have to learn more before I can actually get a good answer on that).
Beyond air travel, I think the best bet for Mars is actually a high-speed train system. I’m writing this post assuming that we’re only a century or less into humanity’s permanent presence on Mars, so the settlements will be few and far between. Trans-Martian rail lines may take a long time to construct and be somewhat difficult to maintain, but they would offer the most efficient mode of point-to-point travel across the Martian surface. If the radiation proves to be too much for any surface travel at all, the rail lines could be placed underground. They should also be made with enough structural integrity so that they can operate even in the fiercest of the red planet’s dust storms.
These rail lines would need to be built for both passengers and cargo. I think a lot of cargo in the future would be water getting shipped from polar regions to more temperate regions. Once the initial shipments are made, water could conceivably just be recycled within the settlements far from the equator. I say that water would need to be shipped by train as opposed to being piped down because the water in the polar regions is in the form of ice, and I am presuming that it is simpler to just transport blocks of ice by train and let the end-users decide what they want to do with it rather than melting the ice first and piping it down. The pipes would also need to be heated, and that just seems like another unnecessary waste of energy.
Back to the idea of planes, I’m not sure if they’re really a decent option. Elon Musk’s planned BFR launch vehicle is meant to be capable of transporting people from point-to-point on a single planet, so by the time the need for suitable Martian travel options becomes a big deal, this may be a better option than traditional jet aircraft.