How Would Humans Decompose on Mars?

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The Red Planet's unearthly environment will play a key role in how future astronauts — and martian settlers — handle their dead.
Mars is a cold, dry, dusty planet — and humans hope to someday set foot there. But what will happen once a human dies in this strange, extreme environment? (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

Mars has dominated recent headlines as the newest generation of robotic explorers aims to uncover its secrets. But one day, robots won't be the Red Planet's only inhabitants. Human explorers will be next.

And whether we're sending a small crew on a round trip or shuttling colonists with a one-way ticket, someday, somehow, someone will die on Mars. And because of the potentially prohibitive logistics and cost of transporting their body back home, it might very well need to stay there.

So, what would happen to a dead body on Mars?

How Decomposition works

Humans evolved on Earth and our home planet is the perfect environment for us, alive or dead. On Earth, human remains eventually decompose as the environment recycles the body's biomass, the organic material that makes us up. "Certain organisms basically have evolved to exploit the biomass of dead organisms. That's just their thing, their niche," says Nicholas Passalacqua, program director of the forensic anthropology program at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

Here's what (basically) happens when a person dies and decomposes, according to Melissa Connor, a professor of forensic anthropology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. Early on, the body cools (algor mortis) and the blood begins to pool due to gravity (livor mortis). Rigor mortis, or temporary stiffening of the muscles, sets in. Then, cells begin to break down as the body's own enzymes destroy them — a process called autolysis. Then putrefaction occurs, as the bacteria that help us digest our food keep right on trucking along. It's autolysis and putrefaction that cause things like discoloration and other skin changes, as well as bloating. Scavengers (such as insects, birds, or other animals) and later fungi also move…
Alison Klesman
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