I'm wondering if Earth would try to keep any colonies we put on other celestial bodies in this solar system to be economically dependent on the mother planet.

Greater distances make 'ruling' more difficult and makes it easier for the ruled to feel the distant government is out of touch with their reality.

So in order to head off revolts or just declarations of independence on colonies on the moon or Mars or else where, would Earth try to keep them dependent for something(s) in order to control them and keep them as 'profitable' colonies however that works out? Bonus, what is the most likely thing to keep the (im)balance of power?

"I owe my soul to the company store..."

EDIT: I know that mining raw materials on Mars and shipping them back to Earth is not likely viable situation that would cause Earth to make/want colonies. However, Mars has a much lower gravity and two tiny moons that you can almost jump into orbit on. It also happens to be significantly closer to the asteroid belt.

So getting the raw materials to make parts for space ships and space stations (or even building the whole thing) could be dramatically cheaper. This could be a huge incentive to not let Mars be independent.

  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Yes. No. Pick one. Either can be justified. Either can produce good stories. $\endgroup$
    – keshlam
    Oct 29, 2015 at 2:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, of course. Only the potential of space mercantilism will motivate us to get serious about space colonization. But it won't work -- people born on Mars, a free habitat, a balloon above Venus, on Titan, etc. will wonder why they are supposed to work so hard to support Earth when those they care about are right there around them. The speed of light is a concrete limitation to military imposition of a decision, and mercantilism will fail because its just too hard to force people to do things at a distance (or even up close). This has happened in the 16th through 19th centuries (and before). $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Oct 29, 2015 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ What kind of setting are you imagining here? Modern-level technology? Modern+Soon(TM)? Plausible future technology? Warp drives? Also, what do you plan on colonizing - our solar system, or other star systems? What kind of universe? Dead? Full of inedible, hostile alien life? Ridge-forehead humans in other star systems? Remember, the only reason there were any colonies in the first place was that they brought in income - mainly due to severely restricted trade on expensive goods. The Ancient Greeks had tons of colonies - lasting about a week or so on average (they lacked power projection). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 29, 2015 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ In topics like this, people tend to forget how vulnerable Earth is to colonies in the outer solar system. I mean Earth is "deeper" in the sun's "gavity well", so anyone who wants to harm Earth could succeed by simply dropping a few stones into the well on carefully calculated courses. We have virtually no means to protect ourselves. So in the light of the above how do you think political structures would work within the colonized solar system? $\endgroup$
    – mg30rg
    Oct 29, 2015 at 12:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Would [Europe] try to keep extra-[continental] colonies dependent on them for financial gain and political power?" ;) Same question, different location, time period, and means of transportation. $\endgroup$
    – jpmc26
    Oct 29, 2015 at 22:17

10 Answers 10


We absolutely would.

Look what happened with America and Great Britain. While independence may be one of America's proudest moments, there is no way we'd let the same thing happen again, not when we're on the other side. No, I'm not saying the US is Earth (though some might, 'merica), but there is a good chance that the US will be involved in the colonizing efforts for other planets (assuming the US can increase STEM education and become a leader in science and engineering again).

We'd probably achieve this by first enacting laws similar to union laws requiring the use of Earth sevices. And also by suppressing technologies that would lead to complete independence, like terraforming.

This is actually well explored in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Heinlein. The Earth government has tried to set up the Moon colonies as being very dependent on Earth.

But in that story (spoiler):

There is a rebellion, but it only works because the supercomputer Mike becomes an ASI, and it is able to coordinate the entire rebellion.

Something unlikely to occur in any real world situation. At least, it's not a miracle that can be planned for.

  • $\begingroup$ That is kind of my expectation $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Oct 28, 2015 at 17:33
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Also, consider that colonies might be created by corporations, which would try to use financial means to keep people in line, as well as legal restrictions such as licensing or contracts. $\endgroup$
    – NadjaCS
    Oct 28, 2015 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, it would be an invaluable testing ground for new science and technology that Earth-bound nations / corporations would have enormous interest in. Given the immense technological complexity of the colony, it's also likely that colonies would be dependent upon the Earth-bound educational system for a very long time. $\endgroup$
    – Avernium
    Oct 28, 2015 at 19:18
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This answer probably depends on how expensive it is to maintain a constant reliance for the colony in question. If it is very expensive to go to Mars (and currently, it would be), then the colony should be as self sufficient as possible. If flying to Mars is inexpensive by the time we get around to colonizing it, then the colony doesn't have to be as self-sufficient which allows the home planet, Earth, to exert greater consistent influence on the colony. $\endgroup$
    – Ellesedil
    Oct 28, 2015 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Whether the colony can become self-sufficient or at least mostly self-sufficient will in large part dictate how and whether the Earth will try to maintain the colony as a dependent. If the colony is very dependent upon the Earth for resupply, the colonists have two choices: do what they're told or die. After the colony becomes mostly self-sufficient, they may be able to deal on more equal footing. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Oct 29, 2015 at 0:55

I'm wondering if Earth would try to keep any colonies we put on other celestial bodies in this solar system to be economically dependent on the mother planet.

Earth won't feel any need to try

Given our current level of technology, it is quite plausible that we could send a manned mission to any of the planets in our solar system. The problem is that it would be a one-way mission — it would take significantly larger rockets with a lot more fuel in them (or multiple trips putting fuel into orbit) in order to get to space with enough left over to get to another planet and back. Still, if there was another habitable planet in our solar system, it would be reasonably easy for us to get people there.

However, as you should be aware, there aren't any other habitable planets in our solar system. Both Mercury and Venus are too hot, and everything from Mars on out is too cold. Any colonies on the other planets in our solar system will require high-tech solutions in order to simply survive.

Because of this, any extraterrestrial colonies will be heavily dependent on the Earth for quite a while. What will it take for them to not be dependent? They'll need to be capable of manufacturing everything they need for their survival and for growth.

Let's use Mars as a concrete example, as it is probably the least hostile. It's atmosphere is not breathable — way too thin, and way too much CO2 in it — but it could be compressed and added to the air in a greenhouse in moderate amounts. This would increase the total air supply available to the colony. The soil is reasonably close to what plants need to grow, and it wouldn't be too hard to either bio-engineer plants that can handle Martian soil and/or treat the soil.

The biggest obstacles will be getting enough electricity in order to process enough raw materials to be able to enlarge existing structures and build new ones. Iron is quite common, but smelting pure iron from ore takes quite a bit of energy. At first this will happen using solar energy, but when they can get nuclear energy going things will go much faster (now that I think of it, it would make sense for them to design a combined nuclear reactor and smelter). There's uranium on Mars, so it doesn't have to be imported from Earth, but without being able to just pump regular atmosphere down into mines, mining will be harder than it is on Earth.

All hydrocarbons (oil, plastic, rubber) will need to be made the hard way — taking organic material and processing it.

It's likely that colonies will expand primarily underground where you can build without needing to use significant amounts of airtight materials.

Now that I've shown some of the reasons why it will be hard for an extraterrestrial colony to be self-sufficient, how can the Earth "profit" from owning such a colony?

It can't.

It's going to take a significant amount of time and/or imported materials in order to get enough infrastructure set up for the colonies to be self sufficient, making for huge upfront costs. Even then, what economic or political advantages could a colony provide? Anything that could be produced on Mars could be produced on Earth, and even if Mars' lower gravity made it easier to produce the shipping cost would easily overwhelm that advantage.

Also, suppose that the colonists on Mars figure out how to make something new that we don't have on Earth yet? As I've said, it will be quite expensive for them to expand their available area. Even with a head start of a decade, it would not take Earth long at all to reverse engineer whatever it is, figure out how to manufacture it, and build up even larger factories to produce it at a much faster rate.

One thing that could tip the balance in Mars' favor is if the planet has been terraformed. However, that will be an absolutely massive undertaking - with its atmosphere currently at 1% the density of Earth's, an enormous amount of gas will need to be produced. That undertaking will take millennia - easily long enough for any ownership issues to be worked out.

A colony doesn't provide any political power, either — suppose China had a colony on Mars right now, and the US and China got into a war (whether military, trade, or whatever). What's the colony going to do? Shake their fists at us?

There are useful things that Mars can provide, but none of them are really dependent on a colony belonging to Earth. If humanity continues to grow, we'll eventually start running out of room on Earth. Living space on Earth could become so expensive that moving to Mars is actually reasonable. This would work best if there is already a colony on Mars, but it doesn't really matter if that colony belongs to a particular Earth country or corporation or not.

Another possibility is inventions. I've already mentioned some of the difficulties I can foresee a Martian colony needing to overcome. In particular with hydrocarbons, there will be quite a bit of interest in developing new strategies to process waste biomatter into useful hydrocarbons. These new techniques could prove quite useful on Earth as well.

However, none of these things require being on Mars, just going there. The US space program has resulted in quite a few useful inventions (such as velcro), but they have been a result of solving the problems of going to space rather than some product of being there. Similarly, I believe that going to Mars or other planets will result in a number of very useful inventions, but none of them will actually require anything from the other planets.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Mar's" That's a new one... $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @LightnessRacesinOrbit Would that it were "a new one". Sadly, I've seen an awful lot of nouns that end in "s" rendered possessive by apostrophe insertion. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @LightnessRacesinOrbit that's what I get for hurrying to finish my answer before needing to go somewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Rob Watts
    Oct 29, 2015 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Still wrong. The correct word is "Mars's". $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @LightnessRacesinOrbit Meh. It's close enough. $\endgroup$
    – Rob Watts
    Oct 29, 2015 at 16:57

I'd vote "no".

As others have noted the colonies would start almost entirely dependent on Earth. Not such for their economy, but for their survival. As such it would be redundant to deliberately try enforce dependency and the priority would be to create robust self-sustaining economies that do not collapse with all the investment so far lost, if the sponsoring nation needs to make budget cuts.

In general it is better for the colony to have enough autonomy both politically and economically to be separated from issues back home unless they actually do concern the colonists. The cheapest way to avoid costly wars of independence is to give the colonists a fair deal. And to simply give them independence if they want it.

It is vital to remember that colonies are not established solely for the prestige of owning more land. It has happened, but mainly the purpose is to give the sponsor access to valuable resource and to deny it to the competition. In other words trade with the colony. Actually controlling the colony is generally just an unavoidable expense. More of the work you can push to the locals, better off you are.

More hypothetically, if the current belief in reasonably free trade being most efficient remains in effect, all colonies will be accessible for trade regardless of who controls them. This means the main benefits of controlling colonies would not exist. Losing the colony to competitor would be embarrassing so steps would be taken to avoid it. Having the colony declare independence would probably save money and would be encouraged. This is very different from the era of European colonialism when the dominant economic model was either mercantilism or protectionism.

Under either of those models it would make sense to control the colony and its economic activity. But while arguments for limited forms of protectionism remain viable, the kinds of restrictive models where economic control of the colony would make sense are generally seen as discredited.

Basically, such heavy restriction on trade and economic activity is too counter-productive and the main loser would be the sponsor who made the initial investment in the colony. It would actually make more sense to encourage economic independence and diversity since that would encourage economic growth in the colony and maximize return of investment for the sponsor.

Of course, politics and rationality do not necessarily mix. Politicians often take great pride on acting on values which is just an euphemism for: "Too lazy to think and do not really care about consequences, so let us decide based on my gut feeling."

  • $\begingroup$ I agree that is how things should be done, but what are the chances? especially since we are working on commercializing space travel. I see indentured servitude possibly coming back... $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Oct 28, 2015 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner Slavery and indentured work have not really been banned because of ethical concerns, but because the economics doesn't really work in the long run. They are attractive to the slave or contract owner, but as a whole the entire economy loses since the profit comes from large number of other people performing well below their potential. Space colonization is expensive enough that the need to make back the money effectively might make a convincing facsimile of decision makers having ethics. And the rules would be made by whoever made the initial investment. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner Obviously there is a large danger area where colonial economies are run by and profits collected by private corporations, but the initial investment and risks subsidized by tax payers. In such scenario the corporations have incentive to to make fast profits and move on, not to have sustainable long term strategy. And this does resemble modern "market liberalism" to a degree that makes it plausible. But space colonization might still so expensive that actual planning would be required, You might want to insert a failure of such model in your history. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner Romans actually did that. They'd sell the taxation and administration of provinces to private contractors and when the fast profit induced issues became severe enough they'd take the province into direct control of the central government until it recovers. At which point they'd go back to making fast money... Modern or future governments probably would skip the "go back". $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 4:02

So in order to head off revolts or just declarations of independence on colonies on the moon or Mars or else where, would Earth try to keep them dependent for something(s) in order to control them and keep them as 'profitable' colonies however that works out?

I don't think so. The first problem is that colonies can't be profitable so long as they are dependent on Earth. The cost of delivering supplies is too high. They need to be self-sufficient in order to be anything other than a huge cost sink.

This is essentially the same problem that comes up in questions that ask what Mars would trade to Earth. The general answer is not much. If Mars has nothing that it can profitably send to Earth, then why would the Earth try to keep the colony dependent on it?

The Earth would be much better off putting the resources it could use maintaining dependence to use on the Earth. The return will be much better.

The Moon might be a slightly better option for a dependent colony. It's closer and could send products to the Earth more cheaply. But the truth is that the most effective place to put a dependent colony is on a space station.

The space station can send products to the Earth the most cheaply and doesn't require pulling anything out of a gravity well. It can get raw materials from the asteroid belt. The only thing that the Moon could do better would be in turnaround time. Mars doesn't even have that. Is the occasional rush order enough to justify the expense of maintaining dependence for a colony?

All that said, the Earth or a government on Earth may not do the economically sensible thing. Maybe they will want to keep the colony dependent for whatever reason. But history suggests that they won't succeed.

The colony won't like being dependent and will want self-sufficiency. Radicals will attempt to create the dependence causing good or goods. Or source from somewhere other than the Earth. They'll point out that the system is economically stupid and unfair. Because so many Earth countries have formerly been dependent, there will be sentiment in favor of them.

Perhaps the Earth will go so far as launching a war to maintain the system in the face of rebellion. Again, economically stupid. If the Earth wins the first round, then the next round will be terrorism. No one wins that, but it makes an already economically stupid system even dumber. Eventually the Earth will either destroy the colony entirely or give up on maintaining dependence.

Personally, I think it would be better to just allow the colony independence when it wants it. Whether that view will win out or not, I don't know. There's plenty of historical basis for understanding the problem. But maybe they'll hope that this time will be different.


It entirely depends on the answer to one question. How cheap is travel to the colony site?

On the hard SF end of things, with currently known or near future technologies, there's absolutely no possible economic incentive to try. There's nothing the colony will have to trade that's even remotely worth the shipping costs. Space is expensive, $20K per Kg to low earth orbit or more.

If travel is cheap, this may end up much more like the colonial era, where some form of phelbotinium unavailable on earth is traded. I feel this is unlikely however, for reasons well expressed in other answers. Particularly @Ville Niemi


The main issue that might incentives Earth to control the colonies is the fact that orbital and interplanetary velocities are so great that even a small spacecraft, cargo pod or even space rock could strike Earth with a devastating multi kiloton or megaton impact. For example, consider the body which disintegrated over Russia recently:

The Chelyabinsk meteor was a superbolide caused by a near-Earth asteroid that entered Earth's atmosphere over Russia on 15 February 2013 at about 09:20 YEKT (03:20 UTC), with a speed of 19.16 ± 0.15 kilometres per second (60,000[5]–69,000 km/h or 40,000[5]–42,900 mph).[6][7] It quickly became a brilliant superbolide meteor over the southern Ural region. The light from the meteor was brighter than the Sun, up to 100 km away. It was observed over a wide area of the region and in neighbouring republics. Some eyewitnesses also felt intense heat from the fireball.

On account of its high velocity and shallow angle of atmospheric entry, the object exploded in an air burst over Chelyabinsk Oblast, at a height of around 29.7 km (18.4 miles, 97,400 feet).[7][8] The explosion generated a bright flash, producing a hot cloud of dust and gas that penetrated to 26.2 km, and many surviving small fragmentary meteorites, as well as a large shock wave. The bulk of the object's energy was absorbed by the atmosphere, with a total kinetic energy before atmospheric impact equivalent to approximately 500 kilotons of TNT (about 1.8 PJ), 20–30 times more energy than was released from the atomic bomb detonated at Hiroshima.

Now the governments of Earth are not going to take an implied threat like this very lightly, and will probably have very strict control over any spacecraft in the solar system, even to the point of having the ability of the Space Patrol to override computers or initiate self destruct sequences over spacecraft considered to be "rogue" or even wildly off course.

The other means to control the colonies is the fact that all life depends on phosphorus, and there seems to be a very limited supply of that element easily accessible outside of Earth. Potential rebels can be brought to heel by simply choking off the supply of phosphorus and watching the life support systems stagnate. There is very little that can be done about this, and since Earth also controls the movement of spacecraft, you can't just go prospecting on handy asteroids trying to find a replacement source of phosphorus.

Would be rebels will have a very difficult time of things, although Earth will be very generous in allowing colonies to develop economically so Earth won't be stuck paying for them. The simmering rebellion on Mars trope probably won't play very well in the future.


I don't think they'd have to try too hard.

Most other planets or moons in the Solar System are naturally inhospitable to human life; too hot, too cold, no water, ambient atmospheric pressure too high or low, etc etc. Establishing a colony on such a planet requires a lot of supplies and technology, which is only going to come from one place in the Solar System.

For instance, a colony on Mars, even knowing liquid water still flows there, would require many hundreds of tons of starting material to allow for plant life even using the local water. Martian soil is rich in iron, sodium, potassium and several other plant nutrients, but is poor in nitrogen and carbon relative to what Earth plants would require to survive. This means, in addition to requiring shelter from the Martian day's extreme heat and an atmospheric pressure that won't cause the plants to freeze-dry, practically all the organic and nitrate compounds required for plant metabolism would have to be imported, likely in a combination of natural and artificial fertilizers (compost, ammonium nitrate etc). There is carbon dioxide present as dry ice near the poles (where the temperature is stable enough and the pressure low enough that the CO2 solidifies), which we might be able to tap and which would provide additional building blocks for Earth plants to grow and reproduce (as well as allowing us to create oxygen gardens to avoid having to constantly import it from Earth's atmosphere). The soil is also fairly alkaline and chlorinated; nitric acid would be an important compound to balance pH and add additional nitrates using the soil's natural alkali metal content.

All this material would represent an enormous expense on the part of whatever organization was sending it to Mars. Not just the material itself, but the rockets and fuel needed to get it out of Earth's gravity well and then to Mars, which is going to represent over 99% of the mass placed on a launchpad at the Cape or other suitable location. The resulting colony would, according to most current law regarding space, be the property of the organization that put it there.

The Mars colony, in turn, really has only one export partner; Earth (by way of the corporation funding the colonization venture). Once Mars becomes largely self-sufficient, as well as economically important enough to produce goods and other economic property that is of interest to Earth (perhaps we find an economically viable way to mine Mars' iron and aluminum content, which coupled with the weaker gravity well means Mars could become a shipbuilding hub), there's really only one customer (your home corporation), and if you piss that customer off by, say, declaring your sovereign independence, economics shows that trade isolation will bring your economy to a standstill, to say nothing of what your former corporate masters might do to reassert control (it wouldn't take much to destroy a relatively fragile self-sufficient state on Mars; orbital dynamics alone would make a simple metal sphere a fearsome weapon). Eventually, in a timespan of hundreds more years, we might have additional outposts on moons like Ganymede, Titan and Europa around Jupiter and Triton orbiting Neptune, for which Mars might be an important waystation and (for at least part of each planet's solar year) the closest available avenue for communications and emergency aid. Mars's development to that point could make it politically important enough to be autonomous, but fully independent? Likely not, at least not before such terms as sovereignty cease to have meaning for any number of reasons (the most desirable of which is that humanity puts aside such childish things as weapons to kill each other and focuses instead on infrastructure to support an eventual steady-state population of 9 billion humans).

  • $\begingroup$ At some time, the colony will become big enough to be fueled by internal spending, and not just planetary trade. Also, if the colony would be indeed as vulnerable to bombardment, attacking it would make no sense (you would have to rebuild from scratch) and there would be a lot of political uproar on Earth about the genocide of the Martian colonizers... $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Oct 29, 2015 at 0:00

There are many variables at play here. First is that, to the best of our knowledge, the only rock we can live on in this solar system is the one we currently occupy. All of the others would require effort to become habitable and someone has to pay for that.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that anyone would pony up simply to have done it, so there needs to be a compelling reason and THAT reason will determine who owns the colony-at least at first.

Some examples:

Early exploration of Titan reveals large deposits of a substance remarkably similar to crude oil-Exxon sets up a permanent drilling site on the surface and staffs it with employees and their families. Exxon owns the colony initially.

The population of Earth grows out of control and the governments begin to terraform the Moon and Mars just for the extra room. The colonies are owned by the participating nations so long as they need supplies from Earth.

At some point, the oil workers might decide they'd rather own the oil and sell it to Exxon or anyone who can outbid them. The Lunar and Martian colonists might decide they no longer identify with the homeworld any longer and want to be their own nation.

Would they be granted independence? Should they be? I don't know. How much time has passed? How much have their homeworld benefactors invested in them? Are they willing to pay that back (terraforming can't be cheap-neither can getting drilling equipment in orbit of Saturn)? What ongoing support, if any, would they need from Earth?

My personal take on it is that within a single star system, it's difficult for colonies to split away from one another. It would be easier if we were talking about interstellar colonies because then the colonies wouldn't have to depend on the homeworld and vice versa to share the resources of the star system.


Few of more big questions. What do you mean by "earth" and how tough is it ship to and from the colonies and what are you shipping?

If the state of world affairs is like it is now and it is as expensive as it is now and there isn't a lot of value out there, no one would bother. A colony won't succeed as anything other than an experiment.

A big game changer would be cheap shipping. With world affairs as they are now you couldn't control the colony. I don't have to buy my soil from the US, I could buy it from Brazil or China.

With cheap shipping and if there were something really valuable out there then it would be the wild wild west. Probably crazy impossible to control.

A world government on earth would change things again. It would be hard to do anything other than some little smuggling if all tech is controlled by the man.


I don't think they would be let independent. I imagine the colonization would go something like that, e.g. Mars. A scientific crew goes to Mars and starts building a research station. In that state there will be not even a thinking on being independent or even having political issues, as the crew will be to small, maybe +-10 people also they might be from every nation, see ISS. Then they also will be dependent on earth for basically all supplies. While the station is growing also the political situation on earth will dramatically change, as we are not speaking of a process of weeks, but more of decades. From a point of now, the first non-science people there might be politicians or very rich people on vacation. Then we this happens regularly people might open a hotel there and also start opening businesses to support those people. Still talking about decades at least. At this point I think we can speak of a colony, if it will be independent from earth mainly will depend if it can sustain itself, which depends on the possibility on getting energy up there and other resources.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I was expecting it to be years down the road, when the colony could conceivably be at self sufficiency whether or not they are. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Oct 28, 2015 at 20:33

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .