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What Is the Perfect Number of People for a Mars Colony?
New study estimates the minimum number of people needed for a sustained Mars colony.
SYFY's The Ark (streaming now on Peacock!) imagines a future, just a century from now, when humanity is embarking on its first expeditions to another star system. And when you’re going someplace that far away, you’re usually going for keeps. That means sending a carefully selected group of people to establish a colony on another world.
When building a new society from scratch (whether on Proxima centauri b or on Mars), it’s important to know what resources, and how many of those resources, you’re likely to need. That’s true even when those resources are people. If humanity hopes to build stable outposts on other cosmic islands, we’re going to need to know how many people to send. Apparently, that number is at least 22, according to a recent study posted to the pre-print server ArXiv.
Building a Martian Colony from Scratch
Any Martian colony will very likely have support from Earth, in the form of resupplies and even personnel reinforcements, something the crew of The Ark could only dream of. Even still, the travel times between Earth and Mars are measured in months or years, and any Martian colony will need to be largely self-sufficient from day to day.
In addition to the technical and engineering problems which are destined to emerge on any deep space mission, they’ll also need to plan for and address psychological and social problems. Those challenges may even be more difficult to manage, as you can’t easily swap out a bolt to fix a crew member’s broken attitude.
For their study, researchers used agent-based modeling to simulate several different Martian colonies, with different variables, over the course of a 28-year period. Researchers simulated colonies with starting populations between 10 and 170, with individuals given one of four personality types: neurotic, reactive, social, and agreeable. Then they put those agents to work running their simulated colony, with all of the challenges and responsibilities that entails, and they waited to see what would happen.
Previous research has suggested that the minimum viable population for an isolated colony is at least 100 people, but the current study shows you can get away with less than a quarter of that, provided they’re the right people. See, people aren’t nuts and bolts, and that means they are less predictable but they’re also more versatile. The right 22 people can be much more effective than hundreds, if they work well together.
In fact, personality type appeared to have way more to do with success than the raw number of people, with a clear preference toward people who are likely to cooperate. In their simulations, individuals with the agreeable personality type lived longer than any others while individuals with the neurotic personality type dropped like flies. Moreover, an excess of neurotics threatened the entire colony, with the population only stabilizing once their numbers dropped below a critical threshold.
The point is two-fold. If you’re building a Mars colony, be more concerned with the type of people you’re courting than the number. And if you’re going to Mars yourself (or any isolated, high-stress environment) do your best to be a bud. It’s not only better for your own survival, but also for the survival of the entire colony.
While waiting for your ticket to Mars, catch the complete first season of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock!