Would transport between settlements on Mars be similar to Transport between Cities on Earth?, well except no boats because no oceans. so what would be the most practical mode of transport between these settlements, Railways?, Roads?, Overland Rovers?, Aircraft?, or Suborbital Spacecraft? What mode of transport would be most effective or efficient assuming resources to construct transport infrastructure.


Mars has not yet been terraformed so the surface conditions are the same as present day. The settlements in question are mostly underground to protect from radiation, and most have been established for roughly 100 years. The average distance between settlements is about 2000 km, we can also assume widespread ISRU,(In-Situ-Resource Use), for building materials and other resources. so there is enough resources for construction of transportation infrastructure. for interplanetary travel, Nuclear Thermal Rockets are the most commonly used form of propulsion, so travel times between earth and mars are roughly the same as with current technology albeit with greater fuel efficiency.

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    $\begingroup$ "Practical and effective" depends upon the demand. ISRU seems to be suggesting that there is little trade between settlements, but your question should clarify that. Historically, road and railway construction tend to be quite expensive, require resource exploitation along the route to justify that kind of spending, and spur settlements to develop along the route in support of the new industries. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Mar 28, 2021 at 1:46
  • $\begingroup$ "travel times between earth and mars are roughly the same as with current technology albeit with greater fuel efficiency": since propellant is cheaper than dirt and nuclear power systems are...not, this seems unlikely. I would expect them to be used to reduce the travel time for craft carrying passengers and other time-sensitive cargo. Chemical also seems likely to stick around for cost and complexity reasons, at least until something much better than NTRs comes along. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2021 at 3:06

5 Answers 5


Railways are the ships of the land. They are the most efficient form of land transport over long distances, and the only form of transport for heavy cargo. You can't efficiently transport heavy cargo by truck 500km, let alone 2000km. It's still pretty much the only solution to haul heavy cargo like building materials and resources by land.

Roads and overland rovers can't haul that kind of cargo. They are more for casual transportation which isn't going to be happening if the average distance between colonies is 2000km, even if things were already terraformed, let alone not being terraformed. You also need to haul enough fuel and oxygen to keep both your vehicle and body alive all that time. A train can do that.

Transportation of actual people between colonies, being non-casual, resource intensive, and perilous, would have to be in the form of public transport which would probably occur on trains. Aircraft and suborbital spacecraft are kind of luxuries to be honest, and might be used for public transport between colonies later on just due to speed, but trains would still be the mainstay since trains can transport both people and heavy cargo.

In short: trains, for many of the reasons they were the first form powered of long-distance transport on Earth, even when we wouldn't suffocate.

  • $\begingroup$ Railroads do seem like the best option. Plus a train on Mars would look cool! But production from this colonies would have to be valuable enough for the Motherland to sustain the huge expense of setting even a basic railroad network. Now what kind of valuables could be produced on Mars could make an interesting question but maybe not suited for SE (no list answers). $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2021 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder how hard it would be to keep the tracks clear of dust / sand. There are pretty strong winds on Mars... $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2021 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ @DuncanDrake I suppose you could have drone cars just running along the tracks to keep it clear if the tracks aren't being used enough. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 31, 2021 at 19:52

Frame challenge - Distances Unrealistic

Barring political conflict that would make trade unlikely, even on Earth, colonies tended to be clustered for mutual support. If you need space, a hundred km is more than enough. Two thousand km (on average! For a century!) is totally unreasonable.

Short-Haul Trucking

If we reduce the distance between the colonies, basically "all of the above" becomes more reasonable. First, colonists would use overland rovers that came with the colonizing gear. Roads would come next (being cheaper to make and maintain), then railroads. If general terraforming isn't going on, cargo aircraft are going to be a non-starter, as your power-to-weight ratio will need to be much higher.

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    $\begingroup$ @Fred I think the difference is that all those societies formed independently and then started to trade. If you're plopping down colonies fully aware of where the other are, you might not put them on the other side of the planet if you know they will need to support each other. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 28, 2021 at 8:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred - we know what's on Mars. Colonies there aren't going to be making things for export to Earth, because of the sheer unmitigated cost of doing so. There won't be unobtanium. Mutual support will be a given unless it's literally a cold war colonization competition - in which case, there will be no trade, and the question is moot. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 20:46

Point-to-Point Rockets

If Mars is colonized to the point where there are many settlements, we will have very inexpensive reusable rockets, and we will have fuel production for them on Mars.

The challenges of building any sort of planet-spanning road or rail infrastructure on Mars are daunting. We would need smelters for steel, mining for raw materials, etc. Any work would be carried out in spacesuits, and unless you already had another transportation system, the workers would have to bring their own habs and live on the road. That's something we won't be doing on Mars for a very long time.

On the other hand, let's say Starship eventually flies to Mars. There is no reason at all why a Starship couldn't be loaded with 100 tons of cargo and people and flown to another point on the planet. With an ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) facility at each base making rocket fuel, Rockets could travel back and forth. In Mars' thin atmosphere and low gravity, rockets would be much more efficient than they are on Earth.

The key is that they would leverage the same infrastructure used to fly people and goods to and from Earth. Worst case they might have to build additional ISRU capacity to handle local flying, but that's a lot cheaper than building a road or rail system across another planet.



Take advantage of the already low pressure of the atmosphere on Mars, as well as the lower gravity, and get high-velocity transportation mode.

A lower-tech alternative may be the railroads, but changes of temperature on Mars can be quite extreme with a day/night cycle ranging from -73C to +20C, so that's far from your typical earth railroad conditions.

With a cover or a tube, you may somewhat keep things more under constant conditions, without such swings. And if there are reasons to have such cover then why not.

It can be a combined solution, meaning it may have a railroad inside as an alternative, or some maintenance needs or inheritance of building process or backup.

For roads there are not that many materials available on Mars, meaning it not your typical tarmac, and to build them expenses aren't lower - so it then some stone road, or not cool ground road - the absence of water helps there, but. It may be reasonable to have them as a backup.

You need a backup of backups mentality on mars, because if something fails for too long, an asteroid hit, meteorite - things may get tense quite fast.


Any ground transportation system will require a lot of work to make it.

  • and I mean it, a lot, even if it imagined just like ground road it will require tremendous efforts to fill all the potholes and get all the materials energy for moving all the ground around.

yes, there are factors that help, mostly mean water/rain absence, but instead of it, there is another factor dust storms and dust movement.

if one has an open, not covered track - be it railroad or just road with hard layer (be it stone, martial cement, sintered ground, etc) one needs some protection to prevent dust settling or maintain it regularly - so no solution is maintenance-free in mars conditions.

And lower gravity and fine dust work against good traction, it was a problem on the moon so it will be on the mars as well. And that means no high-speed highways.

  • no matter the problems, you need to have usual roads as well, as they have certain advantages such as easy to make branches, side roads, to reach multiple destinations in some area. That is the case we have on earth, but as for the long haul, not so great.

Big cities or small ones - it needs a fast and reliable transportation network. with hyperloop - the pressure is about right, so lower gravity plays as an advantage factor.

  • with small cities, they have to share some resources like medical centers for complex cases.
  • you need water, recycling or not, and there aren't that many places where it can be found(?) - they have to deliver it
  • resources aka minerals etc

So overall you build a road first and then build a city - transporting many many materials and equipment for it, home appliances, pipes, wires, chemicals, machines, replacement parts, food, water, oxygen, energy sources(or energy line with the road of any kind), people if they need to be present at the site, emergency evacuations(individuals or all the workers), there is no end of the list even long before you build that city.

And when a city gets big, there also a need for high throughput of the system.

Hyperloop kind of thing may be a good solution for a long time from a start, up until a moderate size city.

And it has the convenience of connecting cities in one big megapolis. one spends so much technological efforts to get there and to start the first city - so hold the bar high, get the most out of it. Have luxury to visit city garden - because it is looong looong way to home and before your city will have one.


it is clear that all the results and options will depend on capacities and what one has for the job, technology-wise, so as tool-wise, so as energy-wise.

So as it will depend on Mars - what it actually means and feels to build something there.

we may dismiss that type of construction, but after it goes through evaluation in specific conditions and means available, as any other potential solution.

if we talk about the first city and the necessity to prospect and reach some ore/minerals/whatever deposits - then good old railroad is probably a good choice, so as low long-range rover laboratory.

But when that stage is passed, and we need to connect to a second city, then it has to be something fast and convenient.

overall you can't avoid having different kinds of roads, but if we talk in between cities connection - pick fast one, it will help to have a healthier psychological climate in all cities, besides everything else.

  • $\begingroup$ Why? You don't need ultra-high-speed transport, because population densities aren't high, travel would still be relatively infrequent, and slower transit is easier to maintain and less prone to failure. The added expense isn't remotely worth it, given the limited industrial base available. Concrete is perfectly reasonable, rather than asphalt. All of your reasons don't hold water. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop thanks for the edit. "50 percent sulphur and 50 percent Martian soil" wonder where that sulphur comes from, in quantities required for roads. High speed - it in not only convinience of getting from city to city, and with small cities u may need it even more - but also it is high throughput - u use less materials and construction work to transport more. "...assuming resources to construct transport infrastructure.". It also part fast evacuation plan, if needed. So u basically make big city. Roads are convinient with multiple inbetween points, which there is no. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Mar 28, 2021 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ Railroads - already mean 80% ground work for hyperloop, u need just add the cover against dust and maybe adjust pressure a little. Not sure how real railroads or usual roads are in mars situaton, at all. But typical road has more problems with it - truckstops, fuel/energy choices. Rocket hoppers clearly plenty of inefficiencies for regular uses. It will be a lot of work at any rate, no matter the choice - then pick one wich delivers. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Mar 28, 2021 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ A hyperloop is inferior to a regular train in almost all regards. More maintenance. Less redundancy. Much higher cost (a train track isn't 80% of the way to a hyperloop). Greater energy consumption. Potholes are also not going to be a problem in roads, as potholes are caused by weathering of the road surface exacerbated by traffic. There's no weather, and there's little traffic. And sulphur is plentiful on Mars. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop by potholes I meant craters - small medium size - on initial mars surface - make it even satisfactory flat and all that. 80 is subjdctive estimation, do not insist on it, mean by it that all mentioned roads systems need preparation of ground. Sulphur, would like to see ppm number, but okay it present but as far as I can roughly deduce it isn't that high, so satisfactory substancial amount of work has to be done on its extraction. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Mar 29, 2021 at 2:18


Your colonists should use lighter-than-air travel because the surface of Mars is awful and you want to avoid it as much as possible. In particular, there are massive stretches of jagged terrain you want to avoid at all costs, and the omnipresent dust that will cause maintenance headaches for ground-based transportation. Why put up with all those hazards when you can sail serenely over them instead?

You want lighter-than-air flight because heavier-than-air flight is a genuine pain the rear. Because of the lighter atmosphere, you need to go absurdly fast, which (in addition to not being very efficient) makes it very difficult to maneuver or land. Rotorcraft are less affected, because while you do need to spin the rotor faster, that's only an engineering challenge, not a problem when you're actually flying. A Mars-based helicopter drone is being tested literally as we speak and aerodynamically at least, it appears sound. However, helicopters are not generally known as long-distance haulers when there's an alternative.

Enter the alternative: heavy-lift hybrid airships, an emerging technology that aims to pair the long-distance, high-efficiency (albeit slow) flight of airships with heavy payloads for efficient shipping. On Earth, this technology works perfectly fine, but it has difficulties finding a niche in between ocean shipping and conventional airliners. On Mars, neither of those alternatives is workable, leaving the space wide open for heavy-duty lighter-than-air craft.

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    $\begingroup$ Given the density of Mars' atmosphere (0.02 kg/m^3) compared to Earth's (1.22 kg/m^3), your envelope would have to be about 60 times the volume to lift the same mass. This seems like it would make lighter-than-air travel prohibitively expensive, if not outright impossible. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ Addendum - given that Mars has about 1/3 of Earth's gravity, the envelope would only need to be twenty times the size, but that still makes for some pretty ridiculous blimps. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlopGravity is lower, but I think the atmosphere is still much thinner than the gravity is low so point still stands, just not the numbers. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ Ah you beat me! $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ This was addressed in a SpaceEx Stack Exchange, bearing out my back-of-the-envelope calculations - airships of equivalent volume lift a 20th of the cargo (by mass) they'd lift on Earth. I have to vote this answer down. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:22

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