As humans continue to explore the possibility of inhabiting exoplanets or space stations, or perhaps becoming a nomadic space-faring species, one question begins to arise: What would happen if someone died on Mars? Or anywhere in outer space? Scientists have proposed different ideas. Here is what we’ve heard so far.
Floating Corpses and Outer Space Mummies Are Not Allowed
Simply letting a corpse float off into space is out of the question. It violates the United Nations Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. The UN has agreed that peaceful use of outer space necessarily includes not littering everywhere. That means that ditching Great Grandma Robinson out of the back hatch is a big no-no.
Mars’ atmosphere is devoid of bio-organisms, full of ionizing radiation, and generally very cold. This means that an unaccounted dead person, under the right conditions, might mummify or possibly become some kind of fossil if their body was in the right place at the right time. But we’re starting from scratch here and don’t want to start leaving mummies everywhere. That would be creepy.
To Decompose or Not to Decompose on Mars, That Is the Question
If a person died on Mars, the first consideration would be cross-contamination. At this time, humans go to extreme measures to ensure that we don’t bring Earthly bacteria to Mars. This is because we want to ensure that discoveries about anything life form related from Mars truly originate from Mars if it happens. However, some scientists think that it would be difficult if not impossible to contaminate Mars with Earth bacteria due to its harsh atmosphere.
That brings us to the next question of decomposition in general. Don’t we need fertilization methods to cultivate soil and grow food? A bioethicist told Slate that it’s very unlikely humans would ever achieve this by using dead human bodies. “There are societies that desperately need fertilizer, and even they don’t use their dead bodies for the purpose,” he said.
However, bioengineer J.J. Hastings disagrees. He thinks the composting of human bodies will be crucial to any long-lasting colonization of Mars and is working with a fashion designer to make this a possibility. According to Futurism.com, the “Martian death project” involves a ceremonial silk-based, multi-layered burial garment and some kind of “human recycler.” The plan is to create a biodegradable, compostable and green system that contributes to a habitable ecosystem of some kind on Mars.
Cremation and Freeze-Drying Possibilities for Those Who Die on Mars
The other obvious body disposal method is cremation. As Slate points out, that requires oxygen and fuel. While Mars does have some oxygen, it’s considered a rare resource. Its atmosphere is composed of 0.2% oxygen (compared to 21% on Earth). Additionally, fuel would need to somehow be provided. So someone who died on Mars could technically be cremated, but it also requires rare resources and transportation.
There was another idea that was floated by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and it seemed promising. However, her company, Promessa, went bankrupt before the method was proven as efficient. The method was called “promession,” and it basically would freeze-dry a human body out in space before shaking it into tiny pieces. The idea actually makes sense.
According to Vice, a person who dies in outer space would be placed into a GoreTex bag called a Body Back. The bag would be placed into an airlock, where outside temperatures of -270 Celsius would freeze the body solid. Then the bag would be shaken by a robotic arm for about 15 minutes. The shaking would reduce the body to the equivalent of frozen ashes and the body would now weigh only about 25 kg, or 55 lbs. The human remains could then be returned to their family.
For now, it seems that what would happen if someone died on Mars is still up in the air. Elon Musk has offered to try it out someday. He also said that “a bunch of people will probably die in the beginning,” while trying to get to Mars. And let’s get real. We want to get there. Let’s just hope we figure out the details, first.