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What’s the Bare Minimum Number of People for a Mars Habitat?

A recent preprint paper examines the minimum number of people required to maintain a feasible settlement on Mars while accounting for psychological and behavioral factors, specifically in emergency situations. This study was conducted by a team of data scientists from George Mason University and holds the potential to help researchers better understand the appropriate conditions for a successful long-term Mars settlement, specifically pertaining to how those settlers will get along during all situations. But why is it important to better understand the psychological factors pertaining for a potential future Mars colony?

“We cannot think of any type of habitat or future human settlement without including human behavior, psychological or social,” Dr. Anamaria Berea, who is an associate professor in the Computational & Data Sciences Department at George Mason University and a co-author on the study, tells Universe Today. “We humans are not robots, and even the best trained astronauts have different personalities and modes of interaction with each other and with their extreme environment. But on the long run and for long duration missions, team behavior is a crucial factor for the success or failure of a mission.”

For the study, the researchers used an Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) method to gauge interactions of future Mars colonists, known as agents in the study, and who exhibit a variety of personality types and skill levels that they will use for operating a Mars colony mining for minerals. The four personality types include Agreeables, Socials, Reactives, and Neurotics, where aggressiveness and competitiveness are ranked from lowest to highest, respectively. In addition, each agent’s skill level is associated with management or engineering that they will use to contribute to the colony’s mining needs.

“A psychologically diverse population is more desirable,” Dr. Berea tells Universe Today. “In our paper, the ‘neurotics’ are actually needed for high-risk tasks; therefore, they are more likely to solve the problems in case of accidents, but also risk their lives. In the simulation, we start with equal percentages of psychological diversity, and then we see who survives in the system and who does not.”

The ABM focused on how each personality type coped with both their increasing time on Mars and emergency situations, such as resupply shuttle accidents and habitat disasters, noting the colony would be largely self-sustaining with two-year resupply missions from Earth. The researchers noted their goal with this study was to address fundamental questions pertaining to the conditions necessary to maintain a feasible Mars colony, the personality type combinations that would perform the best in a Mars colony, and the required number of resources necessary to maintain the Mars colony given the two-year gap between resupply missions from Earth. Additionally, these came with the assumption of periodic accidents either with the resupply missions or within the colony itself.


Artist illustration of future human astronauts exploring Mars. (Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC)

Additional ABM parameters also included how the agents coped with the local mining economy and harsh Martian environment, specifically regarding the solar radiation bombarding the Martian surface; how the Martian economy could operate outside of the colony; and using energy sources in space, specifically the potential for solar power and nuclear fission. The researchers referenced the International Space Station and outposts in Antarctica as a baseline for their study.

Using the ABM, the researchers ran five simulations with each comprising 28 Earth years and population sizes ranging from 10 to 50 agents, with increases of 10 agents in each simulation. In the end, they determined that a minimum colony population of 22 agents was ideal to maintain a feasible Mars mining colony over the long-term. Additionally, the researchers found that the Agreeable personality type not only performed the best but was the only personality type to survive the full term for all ABM simulations. However, the researchers were quick to note future work is needed to better understand the assumptions described in this paper.

As noted, the simulated Mars colony for this study was largely
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