So Mars has been colonised and is mostly self-sufficient (food,water, construction etc).

(We finally managed to create a back up humanity! Whew!)

Ok now Mars is looking to create an export economy with earth so they can afford luxuries and high-tech equipment etc.

However it turns out it is rather expensive to 'ship' things to Earth (because space is big. You just won't believe how vastly... gravity is a <redacted>)

The United Colonies of Mars (UCM!UCM!UCM) unanimously vote to cash in what is left of the BesoMuskSwift trust fund to bootstrap the Mars export economy.

The only question is:

How do they do that!?! & What do they Export?!?

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    $\begingroup$ Less because space is big, and more because gravity. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Aug 3 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Spencer Yeah, I was a nod to Douglas Adams, but it doesn't really work. $\endgroup$ – DarcyThomas Aug 3 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ Would Low-G versions of Jackass and Gladiators count? TV might be the way to go. $\endgroup$ – Measure of despare. Aug 3 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DarcyThomas, what can they produce, if not Mars? (unavoidable pun, sorry) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Aug 3 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ I'm thinking @Confoundedbybeigefish.'s suggestion of TV shows is the best answer I've read so far (or the best suggestion that ought to be an answer). $\endgroup$ – Cyn Aug 3 at 16:27

10 Answers 10


Robert Zubrin answers this in his non-fiction book "The Case for Mars", in the chapter the "Interplanetary Commerce":

  1. Precious metals.

This has already been written in another answer. Zubrin states however that it is not yet clear how abundant these are.

  1. Deuterium

Deuterium is important for Fusion reactors and according to the book Martian water is richer in deuterium. The price of $10,000 a kilo would make it worth shipping it back to earth. As pointed out in the comments, the price tag probably has changed since the book was published.

  1. Low tech products for the asteroid belt

The most interesting answer however isn't a good that is directly exported to Earth, which can produce everything but raw materials. Zubrin suggests a trade triangle Earth -> Mars -> Asteroid belt, which works something like that: - Earth ships high tech products that cannot be produced locally to Mars - Mars ships low tech products like food to the belt - From the belt mined products like platinum are sent back to earth.

Sending products needed for asteroid mining from Mars to the asteroid belt is more economic than sending them directly from Earth directly, because "the launch burden for sending the cargo to Ceres is about 50 times less for missions starting from Mars than those departing from Earth

  1. Fuel

Also mentioned before, fuel produced on Mars would be very useful for goods transported from Earth to the belt or back.

If you are interested in hard facts about how Mars could be colonized, I really recommend the book.

  • $\begingroup$ The easiest way to power cargo transport between the Earth and the asteroid belt is solar. Build a ferrous cage for the cargo, put it in an electromagnetic catapult and throw it. Catch it at the other end with an electromagnetic funnel that works like the catapult but in reverse. Precious metals are almost certainly going to be easier to get from the asteroid belt. Also, probably cheaper to mine on Earth than launch from Mars. Deuterium is possible, but it may turn out to be plentiful in the asteroid belt. It's not clear to me that the asteroid belt will need food. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 5 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ Deuterium probably won't be worth it. You can buy it on Earth for about $2000/kg, which means that even if you can get it for free on Mars, you'll need some pretty efficient rockets to get it to Earth for less than that. $\endgroup$ – Mark Aug 5 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ Goodreads link; The case for Mars $\endgroup$ – Jontia Aug 5 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Zubrin quotes prices of $10,000/kg. Quite possible that the costs changed since the book was published. $\endgroup$ – Helena Aug 5 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Jontia, thanks I added the goodreads link to the answer. $\endgroup$ – Helena Aug 5 at 13:37

"All Empires of the Future will be Empires of the Mind"

The economy of the future will not be in parts or in minerals - these would be obtainable anywhere and with new means of manufacture would be quite ubiquitous.

Instead real value would be in tertiary items. Things like:

  • Inventions, IP related items
  • Art, culture, entertainment
  • Research, scientific data, results and education
  • Finance, funding, trade powerhouse
  • Online communities, social media and privacy data

These are the new commodities, easily tradable from Mars. There would be immense interest in what is happening on Mars, what they are doing, what people could learn, the data they could be entrusted with. This is tradable.

Look historically at seemingly disadvantaged countries in the past, ones with not that much resources. As an example Japan was devastated after WWII, with a military disbanded, and as a small island had very little in natural resources. It transformed itself into a financial powerhouse, using the ability of its most important asset: strong reputable reliable Japanese culture. It could be trusted with funds, and was the doorway (if not physically, psychologically) to the Asian world, and now is a major economy.

Mars has an opportunity to enter the interplanetary economy with new and varied virtual products and services that are built on strong cultural and reputational foundations.


Rocket Fuel.

@aadv's answer mentions the key component. Mars' gravity is 1/3 that of Earth's. This means getting anything off Mars is significantly cheaper than it is to launch it from Earth, potentially exponentially so if the lower engineering requirements lead to a Martian space elevator being possible while an Earth one wasn't.

So you want an export commodity that everyone tripping around the solar system needs, Rocket Fuel is your answer and NASA are already working on production methods.

In Situ Propellant Manufacture

NASA calls the process of making fuel from Martian regolith “dust-to-thrust,” and it’s working on robots that can potentially do all the heavy lifting before humans even land on Mars.

  • $\begingroup$ Moon is still better for that, because it is even closer to space. But who knows, maybe the are more water on the Mars than on the Moon. $\endgroup$ – pintergabor Aug 3 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @pintergabor Mars does have significant water resources. The moon has some, but afaik it is limited to trace amounts in the southern polar regions. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Aug 4 at 12:53

Services. Not the regular ones, but the kind that is more aligned with sustained Bitcoin when it was released, or services to governments who want their dirty stuff done away from prying eyes.

There isn't any commodity on Mars that is not easy to obtain on Earth already. Earth and Mars were made of the same raw materials, but Earth:

  • Is about 10x more massive, so she has 10 times more of the same raw planetary materials;
  • Does not require expensive life support:
  • Is closer to itself than Mars. Like zero shipping time and costs, in comparison.

Even for regular services you have problems, due to taxations and the communication latency of a few minutes at best.

You can't even sell martian sand to people into esoteric stuff because if they are gullible enough to think the energy of Mars will do something for them, they are gullible enough to buy dyed regular Earth sand.

So you are left with:

  • Tax havens;
  • Prostitution;
  • Prison camps for the unwanted (think Guantanamo).
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    $\begingroup$ one upside to mars, no cares if you pollute, in fact if it a greenhouse gas they might encourage it. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 3 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @John Sadly, there's probably very little fossil fuel on Mars :) Maybe soil processing could yield useful quantities of greenhouse gasses, but... $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 5 at 13:28

Mars has a lower escape velocity compared to Earth. It also has a less dense atmosphere so there is less air drag keeping you from hitting higher speeds. Lower gravity might also make some aspects of heavy industry easier - ships and trucks being able to handle more tonnage, comes to mind.

There probably aren't as many environmental issues with strip mining asteroids and the moons of gas giants, because there are no humans or pandas there (yet). You might also want isotopoes of hydrogen and helium that are rare on Earth from those gas giants for nuclear fusion.

So if you are mining asteroids, the gas giants or their moons, and you want to get those raw materials to Earth's markets, it might be cheaper to take those raw materials to Martian factories for processing and maybe even assembly of heavy finished goods, before launching those goods to their destinations.

As to why you might prefer to have your factories in rocky planets closer to Earth over spacestations near the Asteroid Belt, I can think of two reasons relating to operational costs: you don't need to generate as much heat for your humans and you don't need to generate great centrifigual forces to simulate gravity - though I'm not sure how much gravity you would need just to keep feet on the ground and wheels on the road. One additional capital cost that a space station would have would be having to assemble the ground itself.

Mars might still have to compete with other bases like the Moon (closer to Earth) and Ceres (inside the Belt). One interesting advantage Mars might have is it's orbital eccentricity: the planet's distance from both Earth and the Belt changes quite a bit, so you might hitchike with Mars, within the confort of a Martian hotel room, and save yourself just a bit of the hassle of spaceship travel.

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    $\begingroup$ Manufacturing the raw materials into finished goods in space factories would be subject to even less gravity/atmosphere issues. This answer would be improved by explaining why manufacturing on Mars would be better, since the cost seems higher. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Aug 3 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ I think Moon is a better base for asteroid mining. It is even closer to space and quite close to Earth. $\endgroup$ – pintergabor Aug 3 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ Before editing, maybe we can compare ideas on how to improve the answer? I think it would be at least two strong perks to having a large spread of dirt with just enough gravity to it: it's easier to build rails, roads, mass-drivers, and other infrastructure for a distributed industrial complex with much more elbow room than you'd have in a space-station; and you get to dump and bury solid waste without building up a cloud of space junk that could eventually lead to Kessler syndrome (assuming the space station is close to any planet's orbit). $\endgroup$ – aadv Aug 3 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ As for the moon, there could be many nodes in this economic network, with some having the same general roles but with different competitive advantages at different times. These planets and moons are not always at the same distance from different asteroids. Countries, by comparison, tend to be still in relation to one another. So comparative advantages between different planets, moons and asteroids should vary plenty. You could maybe launch miners from the moon and, by the time they are done with their target, Mars would come closer to host and resupply them, while Earth and Luna orbit ahead. $\endgroup$ – aadv Aug 3 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ "much more elbow room than you'd have in a space-station" That's only true in Earth-built space stations. If we're mining the asteroid belt, a space station could be arbitrarily large. To avoid Kessler syndrome, attach the leftover material to the space station. Then if you need any of those raw materials, they're right there. You also might make the factory in the asteroid belt. Then it can make a new asteroid out of the waste material that is as big as any single asteroid that was disassembled. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 5 at 0:38

Energy. Let's assume in your scenario Mars is populated way less densely than Earth. The would easily be able to harvest more energy than they need and share it with the earthlings. Ways of harvesting could be:

  1. Solar. While the distance between the sun and Mars is about 1.5 the distance between sun and Earth (meaning that the raw amount of sunlight hitting mars is about at least 2.25 times less), Mars has a really thin and non-dense atmosphere (less adsorption of light before it hits the ground) and no seas to speak of (lots of usable surface).

  2. Wind. Mars has an incredibly strong and consistent airflow across it's surface making huge parks filled with wind turbines a viable option.

  3. Nuclear. Nuclear power-plants might be dangerous but unlike Earth on Mars there is not much to destroy in the first place.

Seeing how earths energy-consumption and population are exponentially growing and fossil fuels being limited, energy trade might be the real deal. Plus the entire idea of "shipping" stuff from Mars to Earth might not even be an issue. In your fictional universe inhabitants of Mars could have found a way to relay power across space by means of EM-fields or light emission.

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    $\begingroup$ Solar: it has better be in space. No gravity, and can be closer to the Sun. Wind: In that thin atmosphere? Nuclear: Let's hope that fusion reactors become a reality by the time the population of Mars reaches a level when they can start thinking on trading. $\endgroup$ – pintergabor Aug 3 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ While solar panels in outer space might seem more effective on paper, maintainance and connection to an energy grid would be a pain (if not impossible). I don't understand why "no gravity" would be an advantage. About the wind stuff, while the atmosphere of Mars is very thin, winds there are incredibly fast with often more than 300 km/h. This would mean, turbines on mars would run with high speeds and low torque, something you can adjust for, when you build your generator. $\endgroup$ – TheBeautifulOrc Aug 4 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ @pintergabor It's less of a stretch to imagine solar power being built from locally sourced materials on Moon or Mars than in space. Not to mention maintenance. Wind? Yup, that thin atmosphere has some serious winds. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 5 at 13:31

Gold and other precious metals/commodities.

Imagine Earth, but never mined. In the past it was possible to find surface deposits of ores made of more than 15% grade precious metals. All known of those have already been extracted. Finding a deposit that is 1% copper is usually very profitable with current technology.

I did the math once (I'm willing to put it here, I just can't right now; I hope I will be able in a few days). It is very profitable. It could disrupt earthly commodities market and still be profitable. That's one of the reasons behind private space entrepreneurship.

Mars main competitor would be asteroid mining, though. OR, Mars could have the gravity-based refining plants needed for asteroid commodities to be exported to Earth as manufactured goods.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe recyling a ton of copper on Earth is cheaper than bringing a ton of it from Mars. Also Mars is smaller. Imagine not an Earth never mined, but 28% of an Earth never mined. $\endgroup$ – Renan Aug 3 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ @renan Ok. I might be proven wrong, but this is not just an unsubstantiated guess. I worked for a short period in the recycling industry and teach a course that is mostly transportation economics for undergrads (I do research on transportation). I'll try to spare the time to write the supporting math. Electronics contain in the order of 1-3% copper and less gold, and are expensive to recycle due to environmental concerns. The promise of SpaceX, Planetary Resources et al. is that they'll bring transportation costs down enough to make extraterrestrial high grade gold mining very profitable $\endgroup$ – Rafael Aug 3 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ A large number of the ore deposits found on earth resulted from the protracted geological history earth has experienced. Plate tectonics, abundance of water, etc. Mars, having experienced only a fraction of the complex geological processes is unlikely to be prospective for gold, and a whole load of other metallic resources. $\endgroup$ – Gimelist Aug 4 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ Gimelist is absolutely right. Mars was tectonically active for only a very short time before its crust stagnated. It has not had the 4.5 billion year history of tectonic and hydrothermal processes that have produced Earth's crustal deposits. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Aug 4 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII It also didn't have the 4.5 billion years of history that buried uncountable deposits on Earth. I mean, sure, you'll have to throw out essentially all our knowledge of geology and start from scratch, but there are mechanisms that concentrate stuff on Mars as well. What would actually result in profitable processing is anybody's guess. Heck, we've been considering sifting through the Lunar soil to get stuff that's a few ppm; if you can get decent in-situ processing, it's not that much of a deal. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 5 at 13:40

from __future__ import . . .

List of exports of Mars

Acyclic hydrocarbons. Air pumps. Beauty products. Broadcasting accessories. Broadcasting equipment. Brochures. Centrifuges. Cheese. Chemical analysis instruments. Cleaning products. Computer programming services. Cyclic hydrocarbons. Data entry services. Diamonds. Design services. Documentaries. Electric generating sets. Electric heaters. Frozen beef. Gold. Hard liquor. House linens. Jewellery. Knit sweaters. Laboratory reagents. Leather footwear. Low-voltage protection equipment. Machinery having individual functions. Medical instruments. Microphones and headphones. Models and stuffed animals. Motion pictures. Musical records. Nitrogen heterocyclic compounds. Non-knit men's suits. Non-knit women's suits. Non-retail pure cotton yarn. Nucleic acids. Organic corn. Organic rice. Other furniture. Other plastic products. Packaged pharmaceuticals. Paintings. Perfume. Pesticides. Pharmaceuticals. Platinum. Precious metal scraps. Precision ball bearings. Radioactive chemicals. Raw sugar. Refined copper. Rolled tobacco. Rubber footwear. Sawn wood. Seats. Television shows. Thermostats. Translation services. Trunks and cases. Valves. Vegetable saps. Video games and card games. Wine.

  • $\begingroup$ Valves? Diamonds? Seriously? $\endgroup$ – Renan Aug 3 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Love the import link! $\endgroup$ – cyber101 Aug 3 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Renan: Why not? Maybe the Martian valve-makers are the best in the Known Space. Maybe Mars has spectacular diamond deposits. Have you considered what DeBeers marketing can do with diamonds from another world? If Romania is able to export insulated wire worth four and a half billion dollars per year, I don't see why Mars wouldn't be able to export a few billion dollars worth of valves. (What will be the value of a few billion dollars in the far future when Mars has a self-sustaining economy is another question.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 3 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @npostavs: It's not random. It is in alphabetical order, and it was obtained by picking and choosing from the top exports of four real-world economies. And it's not a list of goods only, there are services on the list, too. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 4 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ to quote the Q:"it is rather expensive to 'ship' things to Earth " $\endgroup$ – ths Aug 5 at 13:38


On the future earth, forests are gone. Wood is difficult to grow because suitable land is dedicated to edible and fiber crops, and locking up land to grow desirable hardwoods is no longer feasible. But people still treasure things made of wood.

Mars has thick forests. Absent insects and diseases, trees grow fast in the terraformed Martian soil. It is no problem to sustainably harvest trees from Mars. Trunks are wrapped in mylar and launched to travel unaccompanied through space, where they are collected when they intercept Earth orbit.

  • $\begingroup$ Mars is wholly unsuited to Earth-like plants. There is no meaningful atmosphere there, solar power (for photosynthesis) is much weaker, the bioavailable nutrients are lacking, there is no biosphere to support a forest. No matter how 'unsuitable' any given plot of land on Earth, it is still vastly superior to Mars in every way, with any efforts attempting to make Mars habitable vastly more effective/efficient if done on Earth. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Aug 6 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi - Yes terraforming Mars would be a big lift, but is a popular subject for SF. The idea here would be a terraformed Mars as described in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_trilogy while at the same time, political and ecological factors make Earth no longer suitable for trees. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 6 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ Terraforming Mars is popular topic, which is fine for its own sake, but trying to grow trees on Mars to ship back to Earth is not. Even excavating vast subterranean caverns to build artificial environments in which to grow trees would be more reasonable than growing trees on Mars to ship wood to Earth. There is no point at which it becomes more profitable to grow trees on Mars to ship to Earth than growing under any plausible circumstance on Earth. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Aug 7 at 14:45

Psychoactive compounds

Pot and other psychoatives are legal across most of the earth now and most people have a small back yard pot patch, but something about the low gravity and different atmospheric composition - even in the bubbles - on Mars mean the stuff they grow there is ah may ZING!


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