27 March 2012

On Writing Martian Fiction

In Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, the planet itself is the central character, and the changes it goes through as it is terraformed dictate the storyline's plot.

The trouble with terraformation, however, is that it may never work, and even in the unlikely event it is attempted, nobody knows what results the theoretical processes involved would really have.

"So what?" you may say. Well, the colonisation of Mars is not very far off.

The first step is exploration, and that has already begun. We won't see a man (or woman) on Mars by 2020 as many had predicted, but it is likely to happen sometime between 2020 and 2050. Consequently any areophiles attempting to write Mars-related fiction would, I imagine, prefer to avoid writing something that may end up being ridiculed within their own lifetimes.

One way to evade this is to avoid terraformation altogether, allowing you to use Mars as it is now in your story. That way you can take advantage of the ever-expanding wealth of factual areological information we now have to add realism to the story's detail.

Anyhoo, here are some tips I'd like to share.

Martian timekeeping

Some relevant background notes from Wikipedia:

Various schemes have been used or proposed to keep track of time and date on the planet Mars independently of Earth time and calendars.
Mars has an axial tilt and a rotation period similar to those of Earth. Thus it experiences seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter much like Earth, and its day is about the same length. Its year, however, is almost twice as long as Earth's, and its orbital eccentricity is considerably larger, which means among other things that the lengths of various Martian seasons differ considerably, and sundial time can diverge from clock time much more than on Earth.
The average length of a Martian sidereal day is 24h 37m 22.663s (based on SI units), and the length of its solar day is 24h 39m 35.244s (the latter is known as a sol, more precisely 88,775.24409 seconds). The corresponding values for Earth are 23h 56m 04.2s and 24h 00m 00.002s, respectively. This yields a conversion factor of 1.027346 sols/day. Thus Mars's solar day is only about 2.7% longer than Earth's.
A convention used by spacecraft lander projects to date has been to keep track of local solar time using a 24 hour "Mars clock" on which the hours, minutes and seconds are 2.7% longer than their standard (Earth) durations. For the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions, the operations team has worked on "Mars time", with a work schedule synchronized to the local time at the landing site on Mars, rather than the Earth day. This results in the crew's schedule sliding approximately 40 minutes later in Earth time each day. Wristwatches calibrated in Martian time, rather than Earth time, were used by many of the MER team members
It is important to be aware of local solar time for purposes of planning the daily activities of Mars landers. Daylight is needed for the solar panels. Also, temperatures will rise and fall in very rapid synchronicity with the Sun because, unlike on Earth, the thin atmosphere and lack of water do very little to buffer temperature fluctuations.
As on Earth, on Mars there is also an equation of time that represents the difference between sundial time and uniform (clock) time. The equation of time is illustrated by an analemma. Because of orbital eccentricity, the length of the solar day is not quite constant. Because its orbital eccentricity is greater than that of Earth, the length of day varies from the average by a greater amount than that of Earth, and hence its equation of time shows greater variation than that of Earth: on Mars, the Sun can run 50 minutes slower or 40 minutes faster than a Martian clock (on Earth, the corresponding figures are 14 min 22 sec slower and 16 min 23 sec faster).
Mars has a prime meridian, defined as passing through the small crater Airy-0. In the future, perhaps Mars could have time zones defined at regular intervals from the prime meridian, as on Earth. However, for the time being, there is no need to co-ordinate the activities of the various landers, so each lander uses its own time zone (some approximation of local solar time), as cities did on Earth before the introduction of standard time in the 19th century.
And a couple more notes from wiki: Coordinated Mars Time (MTC)...
MTC is a proposed Mars analogue to Universal Time (UT) on Earth. It is defined as the mean solar time at Mars's prime meridian (i.e., at the centre of the crater Airy-0). The name "MTC" is intended to parallel the Terran Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), but this is somewhat misleading: what distinguishes UTC from other forms of UT is its leap seconds, but MTC does not use any such scheme. MTC is more closely analogous to UT1.
Use of the term "MTC" as the name of a planetary standard time for Mars first appeared in the Mars24 sunclock coded by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. It replaced Mars24's previous use of the term "Airy Mean Time" (AMT), which was a direct parallel of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In an astronomical context, "GMT" is a deprecated name for Universal Time, or sometimes more specifically for UT1.
AMT has not yet been employed in official mission timekeeping. This is partially attributable to uncertainty regarding the position of Airy-0 (relative to other longitudes), which meant that AMT couldn't be realized as accurately as local time at points being studied. At the start of the Mars Exploration Rover missions, the positional uncertainty of Airy-0 corresponded to roughly a 20 second uncertainty in realizing AMT.
...and time zones:
Each lander mission so far has used its own time zone, corresponding to average local solar time at the landing location. Of the five successful Mars landers to date, four employed variants of local mean solar time (LMST) for the lander site while the fifth (Mars Pathfinder) used local true solar time (LTST).
Mars Pathfinder used local apparent solar time at the landing location. Its time zone was AAT-02:13:01, where "AAT" is Airy Apparent Time, meaning apparent solar time at Airy-0.
The two Mars Exploration Rovers don't use precisely the LMST of the landing points. For mission operations purposes, they defined a time scale that would match the clock used for the mission to the apparent solar time about halfway through the nominal 90-sol prime mission. This is referred to in mission planning as "Hybrid Local Solar Time". The time scales are uniform in the sense of mean solar time (they are actually mean time of some longitude), and are not adjusted as the rovers travel. (The rovers have travelled distances that make a few seconds difference to local solar time.) Spirit uses AMT+11:00:04. Mean solar time at its landing site is AMT+11:41:55. Opportunity uses AMT-01:01:06. Mean solar time at its landing site is AMT-00:22:06. Neither rover is likely to ever reach the longitude at which its mission time scale matches local mean time. For science purposes, Local True Solar Time is used.
With the location of Airy-0 now known much more precisely than when these missions landed, it is technically feasible for future missions to use a convenient offset from Airy Mean Time, rather than completely non-standard time zones. It remains to be seen whether this will in fact be done.
So, as you can see, Mars already has its own 24 hour clock. Each second, hour and day is roughly 2.7% longer than their Terran equivalents.

NASA focus their time keeping on the local solar times of their three Martian robots, but MTC (which is the same as AMT) is already very much an accepted and approved "universal" Martian measurement of time, and indeed it is from NASA that you can find and download for free Mars24, which is a must for any areophile, writer or no. Not only can you use it to see what the MTC or Mars mission times are, but you can select any area or point of interest and set the clock to the local time there. Mars24 comes with a map of Mars showing where it is night and day, with a choice of map styles as well as orbital position, analemma position and local panorama as seen by the robots.

Although time zones are not yet in use, in a way they do already exist. As you'll see from the Mars24 sunclock, Mars24 marks Mars with lines of longitude, each marking a difference of one or two Martian hours, depending on the map you select. For example, if it is 12:00 at Airy Crater (12:00 MTC) then at Cassini Crater - which lies next to the line of longitude two hours to the east of the central meridian one - it will be 14:00 (MTC+2). In Ophir Planum - four longitudal hours to the west of the meridian - it will be 08:00 (MTC-4), and so on.

One consideration for the writer here is just how colonised is the Mars of his or her story. If there are only a handful of manned bases or settlements, then the question of MTC or time zones won't matter very much as everything will be calculated by the local solar times of those bases and/or settlements.

More tricky than the question of hours and minutes is that of the Martian calendar. Mainly because there isn't one. Yet.

The Martian Calendar

There have been various attempts by areophiles to create a Martian calendar, a notable example being the rather elaborate Darian Calendar. The reasoning behind these calendars is that in the future Martian colonists will need their own calendar with months and weeks. Then there is the question of when to date the calendar back to: should 1976 (year of the Viking Lander) be marked as year 1? Or 1971 (Mars 3)? or 1610 (Galileo Galilei observes the phases of Mars in December 1610)? or even 1 AD?

Martian Year 1

First I'll address the latter question. It doesn't really matter when year 1 is set, but it certainly doesn't have to be before the 20th century.

For example, the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, and World War II lasted from 1939 to 1946 - and that's all future Martian children need to know. They don't need to have a corresponding Martian date for those or any other dates in Earth history because there weren't any folks on Mars back then anyway.

Now, when it comes to deciding when your story is to take place, you might want to give the Martian year rather than the terrestrial one. It depends on how ambiguous or unambiguous you want to be about it. If you want to be ambiguous, you can just make the date up (eg "It was in [Colony Year] 26") without indicating what the equivalent Earth year is.

If you do have a set future date in mind, but would like to "keep it Martian" as it were, then I'd recommend using the Mars Sol Date (MSD).

MSD represents a sequential count of Mars solar days elapsed since the 29th of December, 1873 at approximately Greenwich noon (Julian Date 2405522.0). This epoch was prior to the great 1877 perihelic opposition of Mars and precedes nearly all detailed observations of temporal changes on the planet. It corresponds to a Mars  Ls  of 277°, approximately the same planetocentric solar longitude as that for the Earth on the same date. MSD 44796.0 is approximately coincident with 2000 January 6.0, at a near-coincidence of prime meridian midnights on the two planets and a repetition of Mars  Ls = 277°. The period 44796 sols also represents a near commensurability of 126 Julian years and 67 Mars tropical revolutions. In principle, the MSD could be used as a coherent sol-date reference for a variety of Mars missions.


The argument in favour of such calendars as the Darian Calendar and others runs like this:

If it is ever necessary to schedule and co-ordinate activities on a large scale across the surface of Mars it would be necessary to agree on a calendar. One proposed calendar is the Darian calendar. It has 24 "months", to accommodate the longer Martian year while keeping the notion of a "month" that is reasonably similar to the length of an Earth month.
Basically, Darianists imagine that Martian colonists will need their own quaint little calendar with weeks, months etc. As far as I'm concerned this argument lacks substance.

Firstly, unless you envision a terraformed Mars (which I don't), Martian colonists will be dependent on Earth supplying them with most of their needs. Consequently colonists - for at least the first few generations - will still use a Terran calendar to mark social anniversaries (such as birthdays and Christmas) alongside a Martian one. More importantly the colonists will need to keep track of and correlate Earth time with Martian time for purely practical organizational reasons.

Secondly, as with the Martian clock (and MTC), the guys who set the standards and norms for Martian timekeeping are the guys who are already "there", namely NASA, ESA and the scientific community. So let us look at how they go about it:
Mars scientists typically keep track of the Martian year by use of the heliocentric longitude (or "seasonal longitude"), typically abbreviated  Ls, the position of Mars in its orbit around the Sun. Ls  is defined as 0 degrees at the Martian northward equinox, and hence is 90 degrees at the Martian northern solstice, 180 at the Martian southward equinox, and 270 degrees at the Martian southern solstice.
The Ls (pronounced 'el-sub-es') 'calendar' may not be as quaint as a calendar of 12-24 months with pretty names, but at least it's real. And you can be sure that it will be the system employed by the first colonists. So how does it work? Well that brings me to my personal favourite calendar choice.

Martian months

The Mars Climate Database offers an indispensable Earth Date to Martian Solar Longitude Conversion table. Enter any date and the converter will tell you the corresponding Martian date, what sol (Martian day) of the year it is, and what the Ls is.

The site explains its calendar thus:
A Martian year is 668.6 sols (Martian solar days) long and a sol is 88775.245 seconds long. Martian months are defined as spanning 30 degrees in solar longitude. Due to the eccentricity of Mars' orbit, Martian months are thus from 46 to 67 sols long.
The months have no names, so you can either name them after their numbers (Month 1, Month 2 etc), or their ordinal numbers in Latin (Primus, Secundus, Tertius, Quartus, Quintus, Sextus, Septimus, Octavius, Nonus, Decimus, Undecimus, Duodecimus) name them after Earth months (January, February etc) or invent your own ones for your story. Or just not use months at all. Personally speaking, I quite like using the Latin ordinal numbers.

Far more important in terms of calendric credibility are the sol numbers. Why? Because the beginning and end dates of the months and seasons in relation to Ls may vary. For example, the 4th of Month 10, because the 4th of Month 10 might not fall on the same sol every year.

 Ls - apart from marking when a season or month begins, the Ls will be important for the calculation of interplanetary traffic and organization between Earth and Mars. Consequently Ls will always be of importance to Martian colonists. But in terms of setting a date, fixing a Martian anniversary etc we can use the sol number.

For example, there are 668-669 sols in a Martian year. So why do we need to fix the beginning of (for example) the Martian Superbowl on the xth day of the xth month when we can just set the date as Sol 123? Answer: we don't.

The Mars Climate Database numbers Martian years according to the calendar proposed by R. Todd Clancy (Clancy et al., Journal of Geophys. Res 105, p 9553, 2000): Martian Year 1 beginning on April 11th, 1955 (L= 0, Martian vernal equinox), ie the Martian vernal equinox prior to the first observed global Martian dust storm. It's as good a date as any, I suppose, but as NASA already favour the Mars Sol Date mentioned above, I'd imagine it would make more sense to have Martian Year 1 begin on December 29th, 1873.

Other resources

Life on Mars

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the colonisation of Mars

Early human missions (to see an example of an early manned mission it is well worth visiting ExploreMarsNow.org)


As I mentioned above, for early human habitats it's worth visiting ExploreMarsNow.org. As for habitats further into the future, once colonisation is well under way, I'm inclined towards a mixture of four types:

Type 1: Subterranean urban settlements. These could be located within natural caves and canyons as well as simply dug into the ground anywhere (I say 'simply' as in simple for the writer to say so!). In one story I considered writing I was going to use Ceti Chasma as a location. Ceti Chasma is a 40+ km canyon near the equator. Rather than dig a hole in the ground for a subterranean metropolis, my colonists have used the canyon - a natural hole in the ground - stuck a city inside it and placed a large airport on top.

The advantage with subterranean settlements is that they are easier to protect from radiation. The centre of the city resembles a giant multi-level supermall in structure, whereas the rest consists of streets that are in fact corridors of various sizes in width and height, and located on various levels.

Type 2: Spaceports. I'm inclined to locate these within the craters of the various Martian volcanoes. For example, Olympus Mons is 27 km above MSL (Martian Sea Level), an altitude which would (unless I'm completely mistaken) be much easier for Martian spacecraft to take off from.

Type 3: Homesteads. These would be small or single settlements pretty much identical to the bases used in early missions (as seen on the ExploreMarsNow.org website).

Type 4: Caravans. Convoys of pressurised rover vehicles to add a nomadic element into Martian society. The writer can give these nomads any number of practical motives for their wanderings.

You'll note that I don't include any dome structures. Not a big fan of glass domes, personally. They look like accidents waiting to happen.


Despite being born and raised in the RAF, I know next to nothing about aircraft, and even less about how or if the Martian atmosphere would affect jet engines, but it would appear that helicopters and zeppelins would function.

As for terrestrial transport I'd favour rail, not on a widespread scale but certainly between neighbouring clusters of colonies, such as along part of the 3000+ km floor of Valles Marineris. Again it all depends on just how far colonised you want your Mars to be. Other, slower forms of terrestrial transport could include rovers and perhaps hovercraft.


Current Mars expeditions rely on solar energy, as will the first manned missions. Once Mars is colonised though there's nothing preventing colonists from using other forms of energy, such as wind and nuclear power.

Kit (suits)

Colonists won't just need a supply of oxygen when they wonder about outside on Mars. The pressure on Mars is barely different from that on the Moon or in the vacuum of space. And whilst it has yet to be established whether the level of radiation would have a harmful (or even benign!) effect, the increase in radiation caused by solar flares necessitates a suit that also protects against radiation (either that or colonists will have to run for cover every time a solar flare approaches).

Of course, as we're dealing with science fiction here, you could equip your colonists with as-yet unattained advances in design, allowing them to wear tight body suits that both keep the body pressure at the right level AND offer protection from massive doses of radiation.

But back to the present, you can find recent prototypes for Martian suits on the NDSGC SPACE SUIT PROJECT blog.


Just how Mars is run is something every writer has to invent for themselves, but it is an important consideration as it affects the course of daily life on your Mars. Even if you don't want to include any Martian politics in your story, it's important that at least you know how your Mars and its society generally operates.

Further links

Some other factors concerning life on Mars I'd like to bring up:

Mars Parks
In November 2004 an article in "Nature", discussed seven large regions on Mars being proposed as Conservation parks by Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany. Each of the proposed areas contain representative features on Mars including the largest Volcano, Mount Olympus, and the deepest Trench, Marineris, in the Solar System. The historical park holds the landing sites of the Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder spacecraft. 
A few weeks later a North American team; Dr. Joseph Resnick, Dr. Timothy R. O'Neill and Guy Cramer (ROC-Resnick/O'Neill/Cramer team) following the idea as put forth by the two European scientists started the process of turning these regions into parks by obtaining the mineral rights to these regions to protect them from the commercialization expected to one day encroach on these Martian lands. Dr. Resnick (former NASA scientist and current consultant to NASA) states "Space law do not allow countries to have land ownership on planets and moons in the solar system but it does allow for the Mineral Rights to be obtained by individuals and companies." Dr. Resnick was structuring the Universal Mineral Leases Registry (UMLR) when his partner, Guy Cramer, had read the article on the Mars parks proposal and discussed the ability with Dr. Resnick and Dr. O'Neill to implement the idea into reality through the UMLR. The ROC team agreed and decided to obtain the mineral rights to these regions, to set them aside as protected areas, prior to the public launch of the UMLR.
The 1979 Moon Agreement specifically seeks to regulate the exploration and exploitation of natural resources found on the Moon and other celestial bodies; the U.S., Russia, China and many other countries have not ratified this agreement.
The North American team issued this statement "We support the effort to protect these Martian areas and by virtue of 'ownership' via the Universal Mineral Leases Registry (UMLR), we are designating the areas as "preserves". This effort constitutes the first-of-a-kind "Extraterrestrial Nature Preserve" established by human beings and sanctioned by the owners of the mineral rights located in the Mars regions. Furthermore we have obtained the mineral rights for a large Lunar area surrounding the Apollo 11 landing site and designated this area as a "World Heritage Site" which will allow our future space fairing descendents the opportunity to see this site as it remains on the timeless lunar soil of our first astronauts landing on another celestial body".
This Registry www.universalmineralleasesregistry.com is filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and updated semi-annually.
The North American team actually obtained areas on Mars larger than those proposed by the two Europeans and included both the Martian North and South Polar regions.
Living on Mars time & the human body clock

The hundred-plus members of the Phoenix mission who last year spent three months living on "Mars time" had different opinions on the experience. Some hated it. Others loved it. The thing about body clocks is that light is an important factor. When Martian day coincided with Californian night some rudimentary efforts were made to ensure that the team received the right amount of light; and when Martian night coincided with Californian day some efforts were made to prevent contact with daylight (which would confuse the body clock).

I'm doubtful of how much could be achieved by this in examining the effects of Martian time on the body clock. To really find out an experiment would have to be set up where the "Guinea pigs" are completely isolated from Earth-time and exposed to Martian levels of light on Martian time.

So, anyway, in a colonised Mars sleeping disorders may be a norm, at least for a segment of the population who can't divorce themselves biologically from Earth time. Perhaps a Martian siesta might become part of colonists' daily routine, to cover for the extra time in the longer Martian day.

Whatever the case, one thing that is sure to occur quite frequently on a colonised Mars is the next factor I want to mention:

Suicide and insanity

For the first visitors Mars will be an exciting adventure, as it will for the first colonists; but after the initial excitement fades colonists will find themselves isolated or trapped in a frigid, toxic hell. Some just won't be able to hack it. There are plenty of examples of what can occur among non-indigenous settlers of extreme environments here on Earth.

Languages on Mars

What languages would be most prominent on Mars?

Obviously the primary languages of the space agencies involved in the colonisation will be the principle languages spoken on Mars. Those agencies may be national (eg NASA), supranational (eg ESA), international (ie collaborations between national agencies) or private (eg conglomerates/corporations), or a mixture of national and private (nations sponsoring private ventures or vice versa)

Colonists could of course have almost any language as their native one, having been picked for their skills rather than their ethnicity or nationality; but they would naturally be required to speak the language of their employers, which I imagine would inevitably result in there being a short list of languages with any kind of official status.

When colonisation is at an advanced stage, lower skilled employees would be sought for lower skilled tasks, which means that any kind of linguistic community could exist within metropolitan colonies. However, given that China and India will no doubt have prominent roles to play in colonisation, I would presume that they would not have to look beyond their own borders for a workforce of this sort. The other prominent players - the US, the EU, Russia, Japan and Korea also have large enough populations to meet this need.

I looked up the budgets of space agencies, which could also be used to decide which languages are most spoken and in what order:

1 NASA: $17.6 bn = ENGLISH
3 JAXA: $2.15 bn = JAPANESE
4 Roscosmos: $2.14 bn = RUSSIAN
5 CNSA: $1.3 bn = MANDARIN
6 ISRO: $1.01 bn = ENGLISH; HINDI
7 KARI: $0.3 bn = KOREAN

Finally I'd like to mention the Spirit of the Lone Eagle

An interesting idea from James C. McLane III for the colonisation of the Red Planet was published in 2006. McLane advocates one-way trips taken by a single individual or a lone "Adam & Eve" couple, to be joined later by other individuals, gradually building a permanent colony of no-return. You can read his essay HERE.


  1. Falch i dy weld di yn ol ac yn ysgrifennu hefyd! Diddorol iawn. Dwi'n bwriadu ysgrifennu post am ymdrech Cymru Rouge i ddanfon Shaky i Fawrth, heb gynllun i'w ddod a fo yn ol chwaith. Hwyl!

  2. Diolch Boyo! Edrych ymlaen at ddarllen am yr ymdrech honno! :D