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Monday, March 6, 2017

Musk of Mars

Disclaimer, Disclaimer, Disclaimer: The below article makes inferences, speculations, leaps of logic, and several WAGs. This is just a blog, not PLOS ONE; please treat it as such.

It's not a stretch to say that Elon Musk is obsessed with Mars. He wants to make life multi-planetary (read populate Mars and beyond). He has even said that he wants to die on Mars, "Just not on impact." In 2002, he started SpaceX with the explicit objective for the rocket company to become the primary means to populate the red planet.

It's important that we attempt to extend life beyond Earth now. It is the first time in the four-billion-year history of Earth that it's been possible, and that window could be open for a long time - hopefully it is - or it could be open for a short time. We should err on the side of caution and do something now. ~Elon Musk

SpaceX is not Musk's only company. The other companies that Musk runs promise to make Earth a better place with renewable energy production and storage, zero emission transportation, and high-speed rail in low-pressure underground tunnels. What if these Earthly benefits are only a side-effect and not the true reason Musk funds and helms these companies? What if he has a secret plan.

All of Musk's other current companies were formed after SpaceX; or more specifically after colonizing Mars was his stated goal. These companies include Tesla Motors (2003, now Tesla Inc), SolarCity (2006, now part of Tesla Energy), and most recently The Boring Company (2016). Additionally, in 2013, Musk was the impetus behind Hyperloop. He penned the 58-page first draft* for the idea for a "fifth-mode of transport" in low-pressure tubes. Musk is not involved in any of the companies currently working on Hyperloop, but SpaceX does host a student competition twice each year that draws in over 800 students including teams from California-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT.

Why did he create each of these efforts?

I don't create companies for the sake of creating companies, but to get things done.   ~Elon Musk

What if, like SpaceX, each of Musk's companies had an explicit Mars mission statement. Let's look at each of his current endeavors through the red-colored lens of Mars and see what they might "get done" there.


A colony on Mars will need energy. As far as we know, Mars does not have deposits of oil, coal, or methane. There are no flowing rivers that can be dammed. The thin atmosphere would not power wind turbines very well.

Mars is farther from the Sun than Earth is, so solar panel energy output will be about 40% lower than it would be here. However, the panels will not have to deal with cloud cover or weeks covered in snow. These factors and the cool ambient temperature helps to make up for the increased distance from the giant fusion reactor known as the Sun. The solar panels that go to Mars will not be the same type that you put on your roof. They will be the most efficient full-spectrum panels that we can produce. One more solar consideration is that pesky dust problem. Looking all these factors, solar panels will likely be a significant energy source for a Mars colony.

The people of Mars may eventually derive their primary power from nuclear or a fuel source extracted from the soil. Even if solar is not the final primary energy source, it would be useful for excursions and as they expand into new areas, before the infrastructure for other methods is setup.

Solar panels may not be the only energy source, but they are very likely a significant energy component for this Mars colony of the future. When SolarCity's Gigafactory** facility in Buffalo is complete, they will be able to produce the necessary solar panels for Mars.

Tesla Motors (i.e., the transportation division of Tesla Inc.)

A colony on Mars will need transportation. There is no significant atmosphere on Mars, so an internal combustion engine, like the ones that power most ground transportation here on Earth, would not work on Mars without the supply of air to suck in. Just as the Lunar Rovers were battery powered electric vehicles, so too will be the vehicles for Mars excursions.

Similarly, if the colony becomes large enough that you need transportation within habitation areas, then a polluting internal combustion engine indoors is a bad idea when every liter of breathable air must be scrubbed. Without miles of atmosphere above you, running an internal combustion engine would be like running a gas car in your garage with the door closed. It's a very bad idea.

So both surface transportation and intra-hab transportation will be electrically powered on Mars. Tesla Motors will be able to make vehicles for these needs.

Tesla Energy 

Batteries will play a vital role in both energy and transportation. If you live in a solar powered world, you need energy storage. Batteries will provide nighttime energy needs such as lighting, refrigeration, and heating. Batteries will also be important to power the electric vehicles mentioned above.

Tesla's Gigafactory (eventually Gigafactories plural), will be able to produce batteries for Mars colonies. Mars colonies will eventually need to be able to produce their own supplies of things like batteries, but supplies from Earth will kickstart them.

Perhaps the surface of Mars will eventually be dotted with a matrix of solar powered, battery-based Supercharger stations. This could be our chance to actually have a single universal planetary standard for fast charging (on at least one planet).

The Boring Company 

Musk has recently started a company to dig tunnels. He has stated that his engineering team can reinvent tunnel boring and create a machine that will bore through the earth five to ten times faster than any of the massive earth boring rigs that exist today.

Would you need tunnels on Mars?

Without a significant magnetic field, like the one we have here on Earth, Mars is far more vulnerable to cosmic background radiation and highly energetic events that emanate from the sun such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and coronal holes.

On Mars, the easiest way to avoid solar energetic particles (SEPs) and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) is to live underground. Five meters of soil should provide a level of protection similar to that which we enjoy on Earth.

This means that, at least initially, our Martian colony will be living underground. Natural caves might provide an initial starting point, but the colony will want to expand as the population increases with more areas to grow food, living quarters, recreation areas... Drill, baby, drill (horizontally)!


Hyperloop is the idea of an ultra-high speed train in a (mostly) evacuated tube. The ~one-mile long test track on the SpaceX campus is the second largest vacuum chamber in the world (second only to the Large Hadron Collider).

In 2015, Japan's maglev train set the world record at 374 MPH. Musk hopes that Hyperloop will be able to double this speed. But it's turning out to be a very difficult problem.

The long tubes, that Hyperloop requires, makes maintaining a low-pressure environment very difficult. The tubes expand and contract with temperature changes. This means that they have to have some sort of expansion joint to avoid buckling. This makes maintaining pressure seals very difficult. One solution to this is to go underground where the temperatures are more stable. See The Boring Company above.

However, in places like California, where the earth has been known to quake, people may not be excited to travel underground.

Hyperloop is turning out to be very difficult here on Earth. Would it work on Mars?

On Mars, things are much easier for Hyperloop. Low-pressure environments are not hard to come by. And tectonically, Mars is stable. With the planet's likely solid core, Marsquakes are not something that Hyperloop riders would need to worry about above or below the surface. Although a Marsquake may have occurred in 2012.

Mars - The Puzzle Pieces Fit Better

Batteries, electric cars, & solar panels work well both, here on Earth and on Mars. These products make sense for both planets. Looking at tunnels and Hyperloops, the earthly benefit is not as clear.

Musk has said that he wants to drill tunnels to alleviate traffic. Studies have shown that adding more traffic lanes only invites more cars. This will be true if the lanes are in tunnels or on the surface. I'm sure Musk is aware of these studies. Perhaps his vision is to add far more levels and lanes than any historical road expansion, so prior studies of roadway expansions that added a lane or two to an already congested area just don't apply. On Mars, if we're living underground, the roadways could be designed from the beginning to be multi-level.

Looking at Hyperloop, there're several teardown articles and videos that discuss many of the problems of hurling people through an evacuated tube at near the speed of sound. Again, I am sure that Musk is well aware of these challenges. Hyperloop low-pressure levels are not easy to maintain (on Earth).

Musk is a genius. I don't think that he has simply overlooked the things that a YouTuber has pointed out. I think he has a different, Martian endgame in mind. If you were building Hyperloop on Mars, the near vacuum comes for free. The lower gravity will even make the train levitation easier.

Mars - The Secret Plan 

Musk's real secret plan: develop technologies to be utilized on Mars. If they also make Earth a better place, great. Shhh, it's a secret. Don't tell anyone.

Here's the Mars vision: Solar panels collect energy, batteries to store the energy, electric vehicles to move about on the surface, in the hab, and for farming drones. Tunnels between sites (farms, habs, loading docks...) with Hyperloop trains to move people, equipment, and supplies. And, of course, SpaceX will take all the people and supplies to Mars. It all fits nicely.

It's important to note that Musk's companies may not be the ones to ultimately deliver these technologies to Mars. Rather the mere founding of Tesla, SolarCity and the others would help to create a worldwide market for these technologies that would then drive the industry to invest billions of dollars into R&D to create better batteries, solar panels, high-speed trains, and even tunnel boring machines. All technologies that Mars will need. If another company can do it better, faster, cheaper than Musk's, Mars (and Musk) still win.

If Mars is the real mission of all these efforts and it just happens to make life a little better on Earth along the way, that sounds good to me. Maybe I'll sell my home in 2030 and retire to Mars. 😃

Where does OpenAI fit in? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

* Arguably Musk revived an old idea. See Robert Goddard's vactrain concept. 
   As a rocket-man, Goddard is someone with which Musk is familiar.

** The SolarCity Gigafactory is now called Gigafactory 2 and Tesla has announced plans for Gigafactories 3, 4, & 5.