In spite of its incredible height, Olympus Mons was well below the horizon as seen from ‘Olympia’, just like that Earthly committee as shorn of imagination as it was endowed with political acumen which had originally named the colony Mars Base Alpha. The residents had immediately renamed it in honour of the largest volcano in the Solar System as that giant lay only some 540 km distant. Although some 26 km high, you had to get within 412 km for its peak to begin to become visible above the mean horizon. But to Gerry Stevens, leader of the four-man expedition, the mountain was so huge it blocked out half the sky to the west even if nothing but the escarpment was visible from the expedition Base camp. Here, a colossal landslide had covered much of the plains so that the remaining escarpment was only some five km high and ran at a relatively gentle angle of incline over the difficult terrain of the debris avalanche.
The drive from Olympia had taken his team almost ten days. Because of the logistics involved, it had been decided almost as soon as the possibility of an exploration had been mooted many years ago, that it would trek overland and thus arrive at the foot of the mountain rather than on top of it had it been rocketed in. First of all, were it to rocket in, an expedition would have had to carry enough fuel for the return trip, fuel that would in turn have required even more fuel to get it there. With that method of transportation, the payload would have been limited to an expedition of two with supplies for not more than a week and the ability to carry back less than a hundred kilos of samples for analysis at the base. Exploration too would have been limited to the immediate area of the landing and instrumentation to aid in the exploration restricted to the barest minimum. In addition to that, what they sought for primarily, mineable sources of Rare Earth Elements, were not to be found near the summit.
Although the overland trek had been slow and arduous, the four gigantic vehicles allowed the first to serve as living quarters for the crew and to carry supplies for them; air, food and water. The second contained the work and control space as well as a relatively well-instrumented laboratory for field analysis. The third carried the blimp and rovers that were going to be used with the gear required for their operation while the fourth served as general stores and spare parts transport plus repair shop. They had been modularly designed so that even if three were knocked out, the expedition could still manage to get back within rescue range in the remaining one if they jettisoned its current cargo and fitted some of the modules from the others in their place. If everything went well, they could carry as much as five tons of samples isolated in their respective containers. Even so, with such a huge mountain to explore, space for samples was still rather limited and Elena Trofimova, the expedition geologist, had to be selective.
Gerry took a moment to find Earth in the sky to the south-east, a bluish-white star which at this point in its orbit was too far away for its companion to be visible. Or maybe the Moon was in a position where it didn’t show. He shrugged and while he was setting up additional solar panels to garner vital solar energy, he pondered the two planets and their different fates; the ancestral one where he had never been and the one he called Home. Earth was a lucky planet. It grew large enough to retain its atmosphere and oceans. Even when struck by a Mars-sized planetoid about 4,500 million years ago, this was actually beneficial as it created the Moon, which stabilises the axial tilt and climate of Earth, and greatly increased the effect of tides. It may also have aided the formation of life.
Mars on the other hand was an unlucky planet. Not only did giant Jupiter dislodge so much of the raw materials in its orbit that Mars has remained half the diameter, an eight the volume and 10.7% the mass of Earth. When Mars was struck by a moon-sized object about 4,000 million years ago, it hit obliquely at the North Pole and gouged out a huge basin, but there was no creation of a substantial moon. This had been Mars’ last chance. The oceans were lost or froze into the soil. Most of the atmosphere leaked away into space. Mars soon became a dead planet, too small and too cold for plate tectonics; continents. The Martian surface solidified into one homogenous unit. But while dying, Mars became host to the largest volcanoes in the Solar system.
With the exception of Subduction Arc volcanism and the effects of continental plate movement over hotspots, volcanism on Mars is similar to that of Earth. On the Mother planet, the largest volcano currently is Hawaii with the twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa which each rise almost 10,000 metres as measured from the Abyssal plain. But this is as high as Hawaii will get because the Pacific plate is moving over the hotspot and already the next peak, the still submarine Loihi, is being formed. On Mars, the volcanoes do not move away from such hotspots. The stay put and as a consequence, they grow to staggering proportions. Since the Mariner 9 mission of 1971-2, humans have known that volcanic features including extensive lava flows, vast lava plains and the largest known volcanoes in the Solar System cover large portions of the Martian surface. The Tharsis volcanic province is the home of five truly gigantic volcanoes, overshadowing everything found elsewhere by several orders of magnitude; Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons with Olympus Mons, the largest single volcanic edifice in the Solar system, just to the side and Alba Mons/ Alba Patera to the north.
Even if water once flowed over the Martian surface and life found a foothold, nothing larger than the fossilised remains of microbes have ever been found. Yet there is life on Mars and bipedal Martians now occasionally walk its surface. Beginning in 2032, Earth launched what could very well be its final attempt to reach the stars. Preceded by gigantic, at least by spacecraft standards, robotic cargo ships laden with everything a Martian colony would need in order to establish itself and survive long-term, 300 men and women were sent on a one-way trip to the Red Planet. They delved underground dwellings for themselves as even the most optimistic estimates put a breathable atmosphere well over a thousand years, probably tens of thousands of years, into the future. Oxygen and nitrogen is plentiful in the Martian soil and all that is needed is power to separate them. Vegetables grow in great underground greenhouses that in deference to countless science fiction novels are referred to as Hydroponic Farms. Power is limitless thanks to the Hashimura-Tochanov Fusion units, HashTags for short.
But one necessity for the colony to survive and thrive is the Rare Earth Elements, or REE, such as the lanthanides Neodymium for the magnets of the HashTags and Gadolinium with its exceptionally high absorption of neutrons for radiological shielding and consequent use as a contrast agent in medical diagnosis. Also post-transition metals and metalloids such as Germanium, Gallium and Indium are vital for the manufacture of semi-conductors. Almost all modern technologies including electronics, computers and networks, communications, energy generation, advanced transportation, health care, environmental mitigation etc., require these rare earth elements. Because higher concentrations of these elements are usually found associated with hotspot volcanism, the location chosen for the colony was in Tharsis at longitude 236, latitude +15. Even if the colony location itself would not yield mineable deposits, the original planners felt that with the five largest volcanoes in the Solar system nearby, the colonists would eventually locate them.
The eastern scarp failure was one of a limited number of areas where you could access the upper slopes without having to, somehow, scale six to eight kilometres high, in places almost vertical and fragile cliff-faces. The jumble caused by the landslide also meant that sampling for minerals would yield a far better cross-section of what was available than laboriously collecting samples from the different strata exposed on the escarpment wall itself. Although Elena as expedition geologist would be able to make initial assessments in the field, innumerable samples would have to be taken back to Olympia for a full laboratory analysis. It was her job to decide which samples were essential and should be given priority considering the relatively limited space available.
All members of the expedition were true Martians, born on Mars, and easily identifiable as such by their slender build. Because Mars only has a surface gravity of 3.7 m/s² against Earth’s 9.8 m/s², you do not need as much muscle mass and as a consequence, bone structures are lighter too, albeit more fragile. Had he been able to stand on Earth, Gerry would have weighed only 61 kg in spite of being 182 cm tall. On Mars, he weighed no more than 23 kilos even if he massed the same. Unlike their Earth-born parents, the Mars-born were lithe and very agile but they could not compete in brute strength. As shown by the Flores Hobbit, the human genome is immensely versatile and it would not take more than a couple of thousands of years for mankind to become fully adapted to life on the Red Planet.
Already, Elena had identified minute amounts of the REE-bearing minerals Monazite and, tentatively, Bastnäsite. On Earth, bastnäsite had been the primary source of REE as its thorium content was much lower. But due to the alpha decay of thorium and uranium, monazite contains a significant amount of helium which can be extracted by heating. As helium was another vital resource for the colony, even if the Helium-3 isotope used in the fusion process was only present in the ratio of one in ten thousand, their brief was to locate monazite-bearing pegmatites which were far more likely to be found than carbonatites, the mother rocks of bastnäsite, which are rare on Mars. Although theoretically, carbonatite magmas and lava flows ought to be more common on Mars due to the presence of CO2 as the dominant volatile, these rocks are fragile and easily eroded. After billions of years of erosion, it was doubtful in the extreme if such rocks containing mineable amounts of bastnäsite were still to be found.
The expedition engineers Yaema Bah Amadu and Adewele Adebajo were both of African descent as were over half of the Martian colony. The reason is again genetic. In order to survive long-term, the colony had to have as wide a genetic pool as possible and almost 90% of the variation in the human genome is limited to Africa. Unsurprisingly, it had been one of the major stumbling blocks as almost every nation had clamoured for a pair of representatives. Even if in the end only minor concessions had been necessary, North America and Europe were genetically speaking overrepresented with their 44 out of 300 original colonists. As many hailed from Asia and there had been 18 South and Central Americans as well as 20 from the Middle East. The “winners” had been minority groups such as the Inuit, Australian Aborigines, North American Indians and Incas with four colonists from each group. But the majority were of African descent.
Yaema and Adewele were busy readying the blimp and the fleet of exploratory craft that were to be deployed for the exploration of the upper slopes. First, the expedition airship, named LLAMA – Large Low Altitude Mars Airship – by that Earthly committee (and immediately renamed the Graf by the less acronymically inclined colonists), would ascend the slope, firing pins into the rock through which a monofilament fibre header would be fed to which a tether cable would be attached and pulled in place. The Graf was a hydrogen-filled zeppelin hybrid with inflatable wings in order to make use of even the minimal lift provided by the ever-present Martian winds. Because the pressure gradient in the Martian atmosphere is less – at 10 km altitude it is 60% compared with 30% on Earth – an airship is much more efficient on Mars. High-yield Solar panels were part of the polymer that forms the semi-rigid skin, semi-rigid because the great variations in Martian atmospheric pressure even at “sea level” due to seasonal changes and changes in the weather of up to 20 – 30%, precluded the use of a rigid airship. It had to be able to expand and contract with the variations in pressure in order to maintain buoyancy. The electric energy generated by the solar cells powers two sets of high-speed, multi-bladed propellers more akin to turbine shovels than Earthly aircraft props that force the thin Martian air through a series of ever-narrowing apertures, a sort of compressed air jet. This could be augmented by the airship pulling itself along the tether with the aid of electric motors. Because of its large surface area in relation to the moderate thrust generated, the Graf would have to be tethered or it would just float away in anything more than a stiff breeze, especially the ubiquitous dust-devils that plague the Martian landscape. This makes weather forecasts crucial for LLAMA operations and the weather forecast for tomorrow and the days after were favourable, even if continuous monitoring for dust devils would be required.
Once the Graf had laid out the tether, it would be used – weather permitting – to ferry a fleet of rovers similar to those legendary Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity, albeit vastly superior. The advances over the past fifty years had led to increases in efficiency in every department. While the solar cells generate more than twice as much power per area unit and the motors consume about a third less, the greatest advance was in energy storage. Where Spirit and Opportunity had utilised cumbersome lithium ion batteries, both the Graf and the rovers made use of second-generation Graphene batteries which coupled with super-capacitors give a more than ten-fold increase in efficiency: Ten times the power, ten times quicker charging, higher voltage, greater efficiency, you name it. Where Spirit and Opportunity had weighed 180 kg (68 kg on Mars) with a top speed of 5 centimetres per second and an average speed of 32 metres per hour, the expedition rovers weighed only 60% of that, in part due to less instrumentation and communications equipment, and had a sustainable speed of 1,800 metres per hour. Even so, exploration would be a long, slow and arduous procedure.
Once the rovers had, hopefully, located areas with the pegmatites that held monazite, humans would follow and a new base camp would be set up from which these locations could be fully assessed. The ultimate goal of the expedition was to find at least one workable site where a permanent base for a mining community could be built in order to extract the vital REE and other minerals and resources essential to the colony. Also, they had to assess the hazards posed by the giant volcano; likelihood of eruptions, landslides, the effects of Mars-quakes and suchlike. But Gerry Stevens had hopes of more than that. The huge mountain fascinated him and he dreamt of one day reaching the summit to stand on highest point of Mars and look out over the vast summit caldera and from there view far more of Mars, his home planet, than can be seen from any other Mars-bound vantage point.
(In Part II, the story of the exploration of the slopes of Olympus Mons will be told.)