The Geology of Mars and the Challenges of Settling There
“We make our world significant by the courage of our
questions and by the depths of our answers.” -Carl Sagan
Sometimes, you just happen to be at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, the stars align (forgive the space pun) and everything falls into place just as it was meant to be. Sometimes, the universe slaps you in the face with an opportunity and cheerily exclaims, “Here you go!” This is exactly what happened to planetary geologist Kirby Runyon, the science consultant for Mohawk Studio’s first game, Offworld Trading Company.
“It was crazy,” said Runyon, his voice practically bursting with enthusiasm. “I met Dorian at church and we happened to start talking about what I did for work. When he found out I was studying for my PhD in planetary geology and that Mars was a huge focus of mine, he said they needed someone just like me for a big project he was working on. That project was Offworld.”
Kirby has been interested in outer space from a very young age. Over the years, his passions fostered and grew, leading him to his final year of study for his PhD at a university in Maryland. Kirby’s knowledge of planetary geology, and in particular of Mars, is indicative of his years of extensive study and research.
“Mars’ geology is incredible,” he said. “There are some things so wild that we couldn’t even put them in the game because we were afraid that people wouldn’t believe that they were real, actual geologic occurrences. For example, there’s something called ‘swiss cheese terrain’ on Mars’ south polar ice caps. Carbon dioxide ice sublimates and re-accumulates repeatedly over time, overlapping each other, eventually leading to this kind of formation.”
Throughout the development of Offworld Trading Company, Kirby’s insight has been crucial. While the game offers some random generation options for maps, many of the playing fields were designed by Kirby and emulate some very specific places on Mars. “Mohawk was really dedicated to a level of scientific realism,” said Runyon. “It’s great that space is being shared just beyond what is strictly “scientific.” It’s an awesome setting for this game, and I hope that it does a lot to draw people into wanting to learn more. I’m so excited to be able to watch science infused with art.”
Kirby believes that carving a life for humanity on Mars is entirely possible some day. When asked what humanity’s greatest challenge would be when trying to settle on Mars, the answer came easily to him. “Radiation,” he said. “Radiation exposure is the biggest obstacle to overcome right out of the gate. Earth has a magnetic field to protect us from it -- Mars will give you cancer. It’d take time to develop, but possible gene therapy, biological advances, or other ways of limiting exposure can make it work for a human.”
There are dozens of factors to consider when discussing a hypothetical colonization on Mars. In addition to simply surviving the radiation exposure, future colonists would need to figure out where the best place to land would be, where to settle, how to mine and store resources, and a host of other challenges. According to Kirby, the resources used in Offworld Trading Company are absolutely available on Mars if there are the means to get to them. Alternatively, supplies could cycle from Earth to Mars in about 9 months time. As far as where the ideal settlement would be, Kirby has a few ideas.
“I’d say the best place to set up a colony for living would be somewhere near the equator,” he said. “You’d have access to solar power, and you want as much atmosphere above you as possible, so somewhere near the southern hemisphere would be ideal. As far as landing goes, because you want as much time for those parachutes to deploy to slow down the vessel, somewhere like Argyre or Hellas would be good. Or, a favorite of mine, a really deep chasm called Valles Marineris. If I could go to live on Mars, that would be the place I’d want to see.”
There were more exciting details and facts about Mars than Kirby had time to relay, and you can read about them in the free “Game Almanac” that comes with every copy of Offworld Trading Company. There are also several additional resources and places to look if you’re curious about Martian geology or want to learn more about Offworld Trading Company, which are provided in the links below. Kirby left with these parting thoughts:
“I love studying space and I’m so excited to see it being shared in all different sorts of media, and now in a game. I hope that people who play Offworld will enjoy it and become interested in the mysteries of space and want to learn more. Nothing would make me happier.”
Resources for the Curious:
This article originally appeared on The Escapist's review of Offworld Trading Company on 05/12/2016.