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Let's take a world that is based heavily on Elon Musk's specific ideas of Mars colonization, to whit:

  • Launch technology from Earth evolves to be to <$100/lb cost to launch ratio, due to reusable rockets

  • A 1,000,000 member colony is established on Mars within 100 years.

  • No major new technology/science is developed (no antimatter drives, room temerature superconductors, cold fusion, singularity, teleportation, or discovery of Unobtainium on Mars, alien artifacts on Mars, etc...).

    However, fusion is plausible, as well as advanced robotics and decent quality AI and advanced genetics. Obtaining water on Mars for sustenance is plausible.

In that world, what would the Earth-Mars trade plausibly look like, based on what we know of Mars, space and economics, in the near term (say first 100 years, so no terraforming of Mars)?


An immediate (and IMHO grossly incorrect) idea would be to model it on Europe/New World trade in 1500s-1800s. But that's clearly wrong:

  • The transportation costs are still enormously higher (I'm unsure what they were in New World trade days but I'm guessing way lower that $100/lb

  • No/low agricultural capacity on Mars, at least initially.

  • Problematic human transplantation (someone who lives in Mars gravity for a while would have issues on Earth).

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  • $\begingroup$ Current cost to low-Earth orbit is on the order of $10K/kg, and your \$100/lb is about \$200/kg: a reduction in cost of 98%. To lunar orbit is about $200K/kg, which might be a more reasonable comparison as it's outside Earth's main SOI; that's a reduction by 99.9%. Because of let's assume no major technological leaps, keep in mind the tyranny of the rocket equation, also this. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 10 '14 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ To lunar surface is even more expensive; one of the linked Space Exploration SE answers quotes a cost of $1.2M/kg. In other words, unless I'm getting the math mixed up somewhere (but it seems about right) you could get about 1/6 of a gram to lunar surface for what Musk claims a kilogram to Mars would cost. Doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 10 '14 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ If getting something to Mars costs $X/lb, then getting something from Mars costs many times more, as you need to ship the rocket to Mars (at $X/lb) first. With current prices, it wouldn't be profitable to ship back even diamonds, microchips or cancer drugs - if we can somehow make it on Earth, then it's cheaper to leave it there. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Dec 2 '14 at 2:51
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Well the outlook is pretty bleak. According to this Wikipedia article there's nothing we can get on Mars, as far as ores are concerned, that justifies the cost of moving it back to Earth. Also, the atmosphere is primarily, CO2, Argon, Nitrogen, CO and Oxygen - I think we have plenty of that so, gas mining is also pointless.

The only thing I can think of is Mars as an intermediate station. However, if we have a 1mil colony in 100 years on Mars, I'm pretty sure we'll have space technology good enough to make space bases much better for this purpose.

So we're left with almost nothing. The research might be valuable, but that doesn't exactly constitute trade. Tourism might be a means of income, but that would involve few rich people piggybacking on cargo ships and staying for a while. A colony on Mars, without any new and wonderful technology to make it real easy to sustain, wouldn't have much in the way of attractions. Maybe a Mars keyring or something - not a high-profit market, assuming you have the resources to mass produce that kind of stuff.

Would there be enough commercial interest to fund expeditions, possibly making them sustainable economically through accommodations? Maybe, there's mining towns on Earth that grew due to this. Perhaps that's the only alternative left, assuming ore deposits have some different distribution on Mars, making them easy enough to mine compared to earth (or much more abundant, reducing the cost of searching). But as it seems from the wikipedia article, that's a bit unlikely.

Perhaps the atmospheric and gravity conditions make some products easier to manufacture, covering the transport cost if mass-produced. Otherwise, I can't think of a good reason to have trade with a Mars colony.

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The answer really depends on the date that fusion becomes economically viable.

If it happens some time after the Mars colony has been established I suspect that in a 100 years from now Mars' biggest export will be automated asteroid mining package plants; the buyers being mainly Earth corporations.

The mining package plants to be traded for Earth tech and food.

This prediction based on the fact that, since Earth should be able to manufacture everything else cheaper than a Mars colony would be able to (as stated in the other answers to your question), the best year 0 to year 10 business case for a Mars colony will be to manufacture space based solar PV plants.

The business case:

The majority of humans agree that global warming is real. They directly or indirectly (government subsidies) invest in clean power. Start up investment is available.

The idea of space-based PV plants with microwave transmission to earth have been around for years. Solar radiation in Earth orbit is higher than on the surface. Unlike on earth the availability of physical space is not a problem. I.e. poor quality low efficiency panels are not too much of a problem - you can just put up a lot more of them.

The problem:

Launching PV panels into space from earth is still unviable due high cost of launching

Automated asteroid mining and PV manufacturing in space is an option. Planetary Resources and others are currently hounding NASA to bring a small asteroid into Moon orbit for study. However, it will take many decades before they will be able to mine productively:

  • at the beginning in order to refine mining methods they need to tele-operate
  • at the beginning in order to learn how to automate the repair of broken equipment they need to tele-operate. BUT
  • NEOs not in earth or moon orbit are sometimes on the other side of the sun, with communication delays of 10 minutes or more
  • Although there are thousands of large NEOs they can only bring close (i.e. capture into orbit) small asteroids due to prohibitive delta v (bringing back the 9m diameter asteroid currently eyed will require roughly 12 000 kg propellant)

Similarly, without periodic real-time remote control the automated manufacturing of PV panels in space will take very long to perfect.

The solution:

Mars' 2 moons

  1. have tonnes and tonnes of silicates for PV panels and other materials for rocket fuel
  2. offers lower delta-v to LEO than earth's own moon to LEO
  3. are closer to the surface of Mars than GEO is from earth (Phobos orbits at 6500 km - that's 20 milli-lightseconds)

Thus:

  • Mining, manufacturing and assembling takes place on Phobos and Deimos.
  • Earth firms like Planetary Resources provides the mining equipment, firms like Shimizu Corporation provides the panel manufacturing equipment.
  • Tele-operation centers on Mars offer employment opportunities to many colonists
  • Only a few people need to live on the moons
  • The colonies on Mars being so close will make living on the moons less lonely (and the view will be breathtaking)
  • After a few years the colonists should be able to manufacture (on Mars surface itself) high tech spares for the mining operations (will be cheaper than to launch from earth)
  • The tugs moving the solar plants can also take people back to earth (spherical or cylindrical plants possibly be spun for artificial gravity). The possibility to go home after a 3-6 year shift will really help in attracting the best and brightest doctors, scientists, artisans and engineers to get the colonies going

Over time Mars colonists should become the experts at asteroid mining. They will start applying that knowledge by manufacturing and launching automated package mining plants from the Mars moons to the belt or to NEOs. Much lower delta-v requirements to get to the belt than from Earth.

tl;dr: Phobos and Deimos can be mined from Mars via remote control. Unlike mining Luna and NEOs remote control will be almost in real time

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However, fusion is plausible, as well as advanced robotics and decent quality AI and advanced genetics.

I would suggest that advanced robotics and decent quality AI might drastically reduce the cost of fuel - through self-building structures/factories/mines/plants - so that it's orders of magnitude lower than even what Musk is attempting.

In turn, this means that a Martian civilisation might be able to build impressive infrastructure and wonders of engineering far faster than anticipated.

So I would suggest re-examining trade you might have ruled out. For example, a ticket to Mars might cost only a few thousand, maybe even hundred dollars in today's money, and Mars - free of many of the regulations of earth, could build amazing wonders - think Pyramids, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Las Vegas, Olympics/SuperBowl etc.

As such tourism, 'Made in Mars' Luxury items, Martian IP are plausible. While manufacturing is harder to envision, some visionaries/loyalists might manufacture items on Mars purely to help develop industry or be closer to great engineers/scientists/artists. Maybe some amazing new (genetically engineered) plant can only exist on mars, and start a new spice trade.

Of course, there's also potential for great abuses, including human experimentation, slavery, weapons development etc.

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    $\begingroup$ The last one could be good. Mars could be a source for anything illegal on Earth. Human cloning, uplift genetics, human-animal chimerae. Weapons for sale. Military grade Xray lasers. Heavy mass drivers for your "cargo ship." $\endgroup$ – Zan Lynx Dec 11 '14 at 7:26
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The real issue to consider with such a trade system is turnaround time. Assuming favourable launch dates, at orbital velocities, you're looking at about 2years turn around time for the trip. Communications (assuming no ftl) is about 38 minutes each way, so thats something else to consider. What would be Mars's primary production? Well, the main draw of Mars would be relieving planetary pressure on Earth, but the low gravity (relative) might make for some niche technologies that are too expensive/impractical to make on Earth (though they could probably also be made on the moon)

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    $\begingroup$ For anything that really needs low gravity, a satellite (or ISS) gives a zero gravity environment that's cheaper to run and faster to reach than Mars. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Dec 2 '14 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ The people who move to Mars have to live somewhere, eat, stay warm and clothed and have jobs. There's nothing on Mars. It's effectively airless, and the soil is poisoned with perchlorates. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 17 '18 at 6:32
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Anything that I can produce cheaply on Mars, I can produce at least as cheaply in space or on Earth without the added cost of leaving the gravity well. So we aren't going to be competing on price.

It may be possible to come up with some luxuries. For example, there may be a way to brew alcohol on Mars that takes advantage of its unique atmospheric conditions. This won't get you any drunker, but it might have a slightly different taste. The collector who has everything else might buy some. Doesn't seem like a big market though. Curios made with real Mars rock is another possibility but again, not a huge market.

Some trade in software, research, and other digital products is possible. However, there's no real reason to think that such stuff will be easier to produce on Mars. We shouldn't expect that to make up any more trade than what it does on Earth.

There may be a movie industry. Perhaps there will be a market for outdoor shots from Mars. Plentiful real estate may allow some truly realistic explosions. It's not like you can set off a real nuke on Earth, but you may be able to arrange it on Mars.

Tourism is an obvious industry, but it has its limits. Mars is far enough away that it will be an expensive trip. A thousand people a year would be a lot to go to see Mars. Perhaps some more to visit people in the colony. The movie industry might help drum up business.

Illegals are conceivable, but it would be hard to do anything really bad. Most illegal things are already available on Earth. If not available on Earth, why won't Earth mind if Mars supplies it? Particularly if it comes back to Earth. There's not a lot of cover in space to hide things nor is there heavy traffic in which to hide smuggling.

Mars might supply high security prisons. Since escapees can't survive outside without equipment, there's a certain natural security. Note that space stations would make even better prisons in some ways. However, they would need resupply by rocket ship, which would offer a chance to escape. A Mars colony can be resupplied by an atmospheric ship. That way escapees will still be stuck on Mars.

Or a low security prison colony. A group of people could walk openly around the colony but wouldn't be able to leave. It might be hard though. Prison populations tend not to be high tech. They might have trouble developing the skills to survive in Mars conditions.

An anarchists (or whatever philosophy) colony wouldn't be tradable, but it might bring colonists with their own resources. Not sure how rich anarchists are though. It's also not clear that most groups wouldn't prefer a space colony.

Overall, I think that a Martian colony will have to be generally self-sufficient. Some luxuries will move, but for the most part, Mars will have to grow its own food and manufacture its own products.

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  • $\begingroup$ To piggyback on this, the dust is very fine, and plentiful - so don't expect electronics/digital products anytime soon, either. My assumption would be that it is an entirely one-way 'trade'. Materials going to those living on Mars in exchange for nothing but research results. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Dec 21 '14 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ By digital products, I mean things that are pure information. Files, etc. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Dec 21 '14 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, yes okay, information. Thanks for clarification. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Dec 21 '14 at 12:02
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Genuine Martian gold, crystals, iron nodules, or any other bacteria - free mineral samples would fetch a high price as souvenirs if properly registered and examined to prove their authenticity.

Organic items such as Martian wood, cane, 0r even grains and foodstuffs derived from Earth seeds but grown in Martian soil (Also properly examined and cleansed of any dangerous or foreign bacteria would also be high-priced novelty items.

Also, exclusive videos, pictures, or even landscape paintings would also be valuable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE Doug! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 16 '18 at 8:31
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Mars has no environmental regulations

The environment is already incredibly hostile to life. You could make anything on mars and just dump the waste outside. No harm, no foul.

Right now, that won't help that much, since you still have to get everything to Mars in order to turn it into stuff, but once we start mining asteroids, we can do the heavy (dirty) industry on Mars and export the finished goods to Earth.

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  • $\begingroup$ Heavy industry requires a lot of infrastructure. People who say that we need to mine the asteroids have never seen an actual mine or ore processing and smelting facilities. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 17 '18 at 6:00
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There is no "Trade" as we understand it, Mars offers "land", or more specifically real estate unencumbered by previous claims and not under the jurisdiction of any national entity.

People will pay to leave Earth and go elsewhere to practice their social, religious or economic beliefs in peace. Weather these ideas are actually good or workable in practice is another thing altogether. People are notorious for not learning from history or experience (look at the number of times Socialism in various form has been tried, despite the murder of over 100 million people in the 20th century or even the destruction of Venezuela in the 21rst), but at least if a colony settlement implodes on Mars, the damage is limited to the colonists in that settlement.

Sociologists and others will look upon Mars as a singular experiment where human groups can try new forms of social, political or economic organizations without being encumbered by the laws or restrictions from existing nations, and perhaps something worthwhile will emerge from this experiment, which Earth people could emulate.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that there's nothing to do on Mars. At least when Utopian Socialist communities were tried in the 19th century, they were set up in locations convenient for factories (good transportation network, etc). For a similar reason, Egypt and the Sudan don't really fight hard over their disputed boarder, since there's nothing there. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 17 '18 at 5:56

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