Whether or not our species actually settles the red planet is highly questionable. Unlike Earth's Moon, Mars lacks major resources of any kind that would make colonizing the planet worthwhile. Unless those crimson deserts can provide some return on investment, it may be wiser to turn Mars into a penal colony, than attempting to recreate the world into a second home.
But humanity may be able to justify settling Mars by diverting its attention towards the asteroid belt first--and the key towards conquering the asteroid belt, as well as Mars may lie upon the dwarf world Ceres.
Despite their major differences, both Mars and Ceres share a few similarities. Both worlds harbor abundant supplies of water, respectively, and both worlds are located closer to the metal rich "zone" of the asteroid belt than our home world.
Ceres however is located within the "mineral field of dreams," dancing around the sun between 2.5-3 AU (or astronomical units). This places the icy world in the heart of the metal rich zone, the majority of which can be found orbiting our star between 2 and 3.5 AU.
Its prime location gives it an enormous advantage over the red giant, as well as a motivation for both national governments and companies to visit this lonely dwarf planet.
Ceres also has a lower gravity well than either Earth or Mars, making rocket launches off of the asteroid king very inexpensive. Boasting 3% Earth gravity, Cerian colonies would be able to easily transport precious metals back to our home world (from other asteroids) without the need for large amounts of rocket fuel.
Ceres's prime location as well as its gravitational benefits could (like Earth's moon) help jump start our solar economy, if not give it a second wind. But how would an active mining industry aid a future Martian colony? After all, if Mars has very little to offer our species financially, why even bother colonizing it?
Despite the fact that Ceres has an abundant supply of water, that supply is finite and will not last forever. As the number of asteroid colonies increase throughout the asteroid belt, so too will the demand for water. Although Earth has plenty of water to spare, it may be simply too expensive to rocket the precious liquid to quench the thirst of asteroid minors.
As the demand for water increases, so will the cost of transporting it from Ceres's dwindling supplies. While launching water from Earth may not be affordable, launching it from Mars probably will. With only 38% Earth gravity, the crimson planet would have a much shallower gravity well than our blue home world, enabling it to meet the future water demand at an affordable price.
Although Mars may ultimately provide a second habitat for humanity, it may make business sense to refocus our efforts on the asteroid belt first. Not only would it sustain political support from various Earth governments over time (mainly because of the money), but it would satisfy the "why space" questions in the public, without resorting to a short hand list.
(Image Credits: NASA)
Update: Added several paragraphs as well as edited a few sentences for grammar and clarity. Also added several images and links as well.
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