If we have people on Mars around 20, 25 years from now, what kind of scientific study would they be doing on a daily basis? I know places we'd want to study, places where ancient water flows might have been, but when samples are collected and taken back to the habitat, in what ways are these samples studied? What equipment is used? What kind of scientists would conduct these studies?

Keep in mind I'm quite a novice when it comes to this stuff - I know what a fume hood is and things like that but I'm not sure how things work when you go beyond the actual getting to Mars.

Edit: in this scenario, people have been on Mars for a decade. Thus most of the work (at least along the lines of basic adaptation to the Martian environment) has been done. What kind of meaningful science would still be conducted at this time?

Edit 2: I have realized my question more precisely is - how would this science be conducted? I have them doing stuff like collecting samples from the apron of a potential ancient water flow, so what kind of equipment would they have on the planet to analyze it, and how would they go about doing it? Remember this soil is no longer very precious. They've been on Mars for ten years.

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    $\begingroup$ Arguably, a scientist on Mars is the experiment $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ @BrendanLuke15, good point, but why that experiment should be done with a scientist? Why not a monk, or a poet? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ If people want to discuss this elsewhere, fine by me, but most people here don't seem interested in answering my question - that is, what human scientists, not robots, would be doing on the red planet a decade after a mars colony is founded. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ You added "this soil is no longer very precious. They have been on Mars for 10 years". What do you mean by "precious"? Do you mean that they have brought back to Earth enough samples that studying Mars geology in-situ is no longer of interest? IMO, you could have formulated your question as follows: assuming that travelling to, staying an extended time there, and go home from, Mars are no longer challenging, which scientific activities in-situ justify the presence of a scientist on Mars? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh - what I mean is, it is not precious to the point that, while still experimenting on Mars, they are treating it like it's solid gold. This means that destructive methods of analysis are on the table. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 22:02

3 Answers 3


There are a vast range of possibilities and it will not be possible to carry out everything at once so some will have to wait and take their turn. It's hard to know where to start but in no particular order here are a few examples:

Biochemists might want to look for life in water aquifers that are thought to exist deep underground. This could involve multiple samples from multiple sites and multiple depths with great efforts to prevent contamination. Materials extracted could be examined for the presence of DNA and other compounds that might be indicative of life such as amino acids and complex organic molecules. Analysis might use a DNA sequencer and a mass spectrophotometer. As with a lot of research it can be very dull and repetitive with hundreds of samples requiring the same treatment.

Paleontologists might want to look for micro fossils in a wide range of locations. This might be as simple as using a geologists hammer to break open likely looking rocks and a microscope to study them.

Geologists might be interested in characterizing and dating various features in the Martian terrain. This could involve samples from a range of areas as well as core samples from a range of depths. Analysis might involve a powerful microscope to look at crystal structure and a range of instruments such as x-ray diffraction and x-ray fluorescence spectrophotometers to help identify the chemical composition. Note a range of radio-dating techniques are available other than those based on carbon https://openei.org/wiki/Rock_Lab_Analysis https://courses.lumenlearning.com/introchem/chapter/dating-using-radioactive-decay/

Materials scientists and technologists might be interested in developing manufacturing processes. For example making bricks out of regolith for use in construction of habitats, bunds or for radiation shielding. What type of regolith, particle size distribution and what additives might best be used for making the strongest bricks? And how much pressure is required to form the bricks? They might need a press for brick manufacture and testing, sieves and a range of additives. Others might be interested improving the solar cell efficiency or learning how best to extract nickel or iron from regolith perhaps using the MOND process or how to better detect and remove perchlorate contamination.

Biologists might be interested in studying how best to maintain and improve the biosphere that provides the water, oxygen and food that a base uses.

  • $\begingroup$ Of all these scientists to choose from, which one would make the greatest breakthrough in science in the shortest time? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ Who can possibly say with any certainty? If anyone discovered existing life or even a fossilised form of life it would be a major break through. But the thing with Mars is the variety of possibilities. We shall have to wait and see. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 23:36

It would be interesting to reframe the question: “What kinds of experiments on Mars require a scientist physically present on the surface?”

With a a very long list of research questions and a limited budget, it makes sense to choose the best return for the research dollar. Human-conducted research can be much more expensive, dangerous and challenging.

Even leaving scientists in orbit, to shorten communication delay and sample return times compared with Earth based research, could be advantageous.

Of course, if you have already decided to land scientists and they have unlimited funding, they would find lots to do.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, yes yes, I get it. My question was though, if we had boots on the ground, and not just initially, but a Martian base that had been running for like a decade, what kinds of experiments would we be doing there? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ Ya, it was a cheap shot. But I'm serious. I posted it as a formal question. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ I also thought that your question is what the OP intended to ask. If it is not then the alternative I can see is that the OP wanted to ask: which scientific experiments can be done only on Mars, assuming that human presence is no longer an issue? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh The fact of the matter is - I am writing a story about people on Mars in the 2040s, and worldbuilding stack exchange usually does not have people with the info I need. All I want to do is write a scene where a planetary scientist is conducting experiments on Mars and it feels like everyone is desperate to not give me the info I need. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @WasatchWind, aha! But you are not being fair. Many here have been desperate to help but couldn't guess your real motivation. The brains in Space SE are wired differently than those in WB SE. If you re-edit your question you are likely to have exploitable answers. Otherwise, garbage-in-garbage-out ast we say. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 19:42

Let's see... Mars' atmosphere is low pressure, very dry, you need to be healthy to go there and you (may) need assistance breathing (you are at risk for hypoxia) and serious thermal protection while outside (you'd die standing naked pretty quickly).

Where on Earth do we find scientists living in a place like that?

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Source: Profesores y alumnos del Departamento de Construcción y Prevención de Riegos USM visitan Observatorio ALMA (google: "Teachers and students from the USM Department of Construction and Risk Prevention visit ALMA Observatory")

See also Canadian Researchers Collaborate with ALMA on the Health and Safety of Workers at High Altitude

Most of the scientists that are on-site actually sit at lower altitude, circa 2900 meters as opposed to 5050 meters where all the electronic goodies are (antennas, computer and electronics) But there are plenty of folks who work daily at that altitude to maintain the system and dishes and to drive the dishes to different locations whenever the array is reconfigured)

Atmospheric water is the bane to short wavelength (millimeter wavelengths and shorter, all the way to infrared) radio astronomy. There's still the vibrational and rotational bands of N2, O2 and CO to worry about, but a second ALMA on mars, (MALMA, MLMA, ALMAM?) would be a wonderful idea. You could even to incredibly long baseline interferometry with Earth!

FYI to fact-check myself, I've just asked in Astronomy SE: How would the surface of Mars compare with the Atacama desert for millimeter wave (and shorter) radio astronomy?

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    $\begingroup$ Without a pressurized suit working on Mars would be impossible. The atmospheric pressure is only 6 mbar there. U2 pilots needed a suit at 20000 m or 165 mbar. Pressure at ALMA on 5050 m is 581 mbar, at 2900 m 729 mbar. Passenger airplanes with pressurized cabin get about 750 mbar. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe thanks for the specifics! In order for A to be analogous to B, they must differ in some significant way, otherwise it's not an analogy. In both cases the human body must be covered and protected or quick death would ensue, it's just the "details" of the suit that's different; both are thermal, one also needs pressure. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 0:52

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