World events this year have been thought-provoking. One thought present in many minds might be: how are the plans for a Moon base or a Mars colony coming along? So, some much needed good news! US engineers have published their design for a nuclear reactor that could power a permanent off-planet settlement for 15 years (K. J. Schillo et al. Ann. Nucl. Energy 96, 307–312; 2016).

In 2009 (and how long ago that seems now), NASA identified such a reactor design as essential if astronauts were to visit and spend time on Mars. It runs (but these are mere details) on low-enriched uranium ceramic–metal fuel and uses supercritical carbon dioxide — cleverly extracted from the Martian atmosphere — as a coolant. With a reliable source of electricity, a Mars colony could then apply itself to what NASA calls in-situ resource utilization, and what everybody who saw the 2015 film The Martian will think of as growing potatoes in poo.

Don’t pack your bags for this off-world utopia just yet. For what kind of society will such an isolated outpost create? A series of papers in the journal Space Policy speculate on human affairs on the red planet, and reach some depressingly familiar conclusions. The costs of getting to and living on the planet suggest the need for heavy corporate involvement, which could establish a conflict between those who want Mars to remain, well, Martian, and those who would develop and exploit its resources. Explorers must be able to plant a flag and claim territory (contrary to existing space law) to justify the trip — but, without restrictions, a free-for-all on the Mars landscape could ruin it for everyone.

The offered solution, naturally, is to divide Mars into exclusive economic zones, separated by a string of protected planetary parks.These would be safeguarded, naturally, by rules: no littering with spacecraft parts, and no walking or driving except on designated tracks.

Rules create a problem for colonists: whose interests do they serve, and who gets to decide them? A central Martian authority is a non-starter — attempts to impose a lunar government have stymied progress on a parallel Moon treaty — so some kind of tribunal system will be necessary, with appointments no doubt squabbled over by existing and new powers. Finally, there is the question of what happens should the colonists decide that they are sick of being told what to do by their parent planet. How should Earth respond to a Martian rebellion or conflict? Would we intervene? Would we take refugees?

One ‘pragmatic’ answer to all this likely division, researchers suggest, is the deliberate development of a new Mars religion, especially for those born on Mars. This could emphasize the sense and purpose of the mission, and help to justify the difficult living conditions.

The picture of Mars painted by these discussions, in other words, is a planet divided by politics, culture, religion, economics and inequality. Sound like anywhere you know?