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How Will Police Solve Murders on Mars?

Mars P.D. will have to deal with new blood-spatter patterns, different body decay rates, and space-suit sabotage—and they won’t be able to fire guns indoors.

The Atlantic

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Illustration by Matt Chinworth.

If humans ever go to Mars, the worst of our impulses will accompany us there. The Red Planet will not rid us of murder, violence, and blackmail. There will be kidnapping, extortion, and burglary. Given time, we will even see bank heists. For generations, people have imagined life on the Martian surface in extraordinary detail, from how drinking water will be purified to how fresh food will be grown, but there is another question that remains unanswered: How will Mars be policed?

Suppose, at some date in the future, Mars has been populated for long enough that at least three generations have been born there; that’s at least three generations who have never known life on Earth. In this scenario, the human population on Mars is also large enough that a person can run into at least three strangers—three people they have never seen before—every day. And, finally, there are enough settlements on Mars—villages, farms, industrial plants, scientific labs, whole cities—that 90 percent of the population has at least one community they have yet to visit in person. What criminal possibilities will emerge in this scenario? Who will be tasked with tracking down vandals, thieves, and saboteurs, let alone rapists and serial murderers?

When similar demographic milestones were reached here on Earth, our methods of policing adapted accordingly. We introduced publicly funded streetlights. We opened police precincts in new, far-flung neighborhoods. We trained a veritable army of professional detectives, including those who would work undercover. We gave cops access to the most advanced technologies we could justify, from hand-me-down military vehicles to drones. We began investigating the police themselves through the implementation of body cameras and the innovation of Internal Affairs. With Martian crime, however, the promise is that we can figure all this out ahead of time. We can design a Mars Police Department before we get there, knowing that we’ll need its investigatory and carceral powers to help keep human settlers safe.


Christyann Darwent is an archaeologist at the University of California at Davis. Darwent does her fieldwork in the Canadian High Arctic, a place so frigid and remote that it has been used as a training ground to prepare astronauts for future missions to Mars. Darwent’s expertise in how organic materials break down in extreme environmental conditions gives her unique insights into how corpses might age on the Red Planet.

As we speculated about the future of Martian law enforcement, Darwent emphasized that her expertise remains firmly terrestrial; her husband, she joked, is the one who reads science fiction. Nevertheless, Darwent brought a forensic angle to the subject, noting that nearly everything about a criminal investigation would be different on the Red Planet. She described how animal carcasses age in the Arctic, for example: One side of the body, exposed to high winds and extreme weather, will be reduced to a bleached, unrecognizable labyrinth of bones, while the other, pressed into the earth, can often be almost perfectly preserved. Think of Ötzi, she said, the so-called “Iceman,” discovered in a European glacier 5,300 years after his murder. Ötzi’s body was so well preserved that his tattoos were still visible. Murderers on Mars might have their hands full: The bodies of their victims, abandoned in remote canyons or unmapped caves, could persist in the Martian landscape “in perpetuity,” Darwent suggested.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.


When I asked Kim Stanley Robinson—whose award-winning Mars Trilogy imagines the human settlement of the Red Planet in extraordinary detail—about the future of police activity on Mars, he responded with a story. In the 1980s, he told me, a team from the National Science Foundation was sent to a research base in Antarctica with a single handgun for the entire crew. The gun was intended as a tool of last resort, for only the most dire of emergencies, but the scientists felt its potential for abuse was too serious to remain unchecked. According to Robinson, they dismantled the gun into three constituent parts and stored each piece with a different caretaker. That way, if someone got drunk and flew into a rage, or simply cracked under the loneliness and pressure, there would be no realistic scenario in which anyone could collect the separate pieces, reassemble the gun, load it, and begin holding people hostage (or worse).

As it happens, Antarctica has become one of the most widely cited examples of how law enforcement might operate on other worlds. Like Mars, it is a frigid, inhospitable place at the edges of all Earthly jurisdictions. In 1996, under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, the FBI sent one of its agents to the American polar base to investigate an alleged case of assault—perhaps setting a precedent for criminal investigations on Mars. If Red Planet credit unions are ever hit by a series of brazen heists, agents from an FBI field office may suit up and head out to investigate.

Alternatively, an initial American police force on Mars might actually function as an extension of the U.S. Marshals Service. The Marshals are deputies of the U.S. court system and have served overseas as attachés to U.S. consular courts. Because space law is prosecuted, at least for now, by the International Courts of Justice, this suggests that the Marshals could perform an interplanetary role, enforcing the Courts’ jurisdiction. Like the FBI, the Marshals have also been to Antarctica—indeed, the Marshals have technically been to space. In 2001, astronaut James Reilly, an honorary U.S. Marshal, “took his badge and credentials into the heavens” while on a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Reilly also stepped onto the International Space Station during that trip, arguably bringing U.S. Marshal jurisdiction to the I.S.S. itself.

Elsbeth Magilton, Executive Director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program at the University of Nebraska’s School of Law, explained to me that, “generally speaking, your jurisdiction follows you up. Where are you a citizen? Those are the laws you take with you.” However, she added, jurisdictions in space can also be contracted in advance, effectively agreeing ahead of time which nations’ laws will apply to a certain mission or even to a particular astronaut. It’s also possible that law enforcement on the Red Planet could take the form of corporate security contractors beholden to no terrestrial nation-state.

Consider the headache presented by an Australian national working on Mars for an American space-faring firm that has been registered, for tax purposes, in Ireland. He has confessed to murdering a Japanese seismologist in a non-jurisdictional mountain range somewhere in the Red Planet’s equatorial region. Who on Mars would be responsible for bringing this man to justice?

Today’s go-to theorist for thinking about unusual jurisdictions and interstitial spaces that fall outside traditional definitions of sovereignty is geographer Phil Steinberg. Steinberg is director of the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He has published widely on issues of crime, legality, and the limits of the nation-state, including the true story of a 1970 murder on an “ice island” in the Arctic Ocean that had been turned into a floating U.S. military-research station.

Steinberg walked me through several examples of what he called “criminal law in non-normal spaces.” He reminded me, for example, that it is against international law to operate a vessel at sea without flying a flag. “You have an obligation when at sea to connect yourself with a state,” he explained. “Failure to meet that obligation is not just a crime against states, but a crime against humanity. Because it’s a crime against humanity, any state has a right to prosecute it.”

For Steinberg, this has curious implications for policing on Mars. Were someone to leave their defined jurisdiction—for example, fleeing the American zone to avoid being prosecuted for a crime there—in order to seek refuge in a part of Mars unclaimed by any nation-state, their actions could be classified as a crime against humanity. They would have shed the protection of nations, becoming a kind of planetary stowaway. “Of course,” Steinberg said, “that still leaves the question of whether anyone would really enforce it.”

It seems more likely, he suggested, that authorities would simply let the fugitive go—after all, a criminal fleeing into the undeveloped wilds of Mars to avoid police capture would be functionally committing suicide.


For David Paige, worrying about crime on Mars is not just ahead of its time, it is unnecessary from the very beginning. Paige is a planetary scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), as well as a member of a team selected by NASA to design a ground-penetrating radar system for exploring the Martian subsurface. Crime on Mars, Paige told me, will be so difficult to execute that no one will be tempted to try.

“The issue,” Paige said, “is that there is going to be so much monitoring of people in various sorts of ways.” Airlocks will likely record exactly who opens them and when, for example, mapping everyone’s location down to precise times of day, even to the exact square feet of space they were standing in at a particular moment. Inhabitants’ vital signs, such as elevated heart rates and adrenaline levels, will also likely be recorded by sensors embedded in Martian clothing. If a crime was committed somewhere, time-stamped data could be correlated with a spatial record of where everyone was at that exact moment. “It’s going to be very easy to narrow down the possible culprits,” Paige suggested.

Mars is also a profoundly inhospitable environment, he emphasized. People will most likely find themselves living sheltered lives, rarely stepping outdoors; when they do so, they will be cushioned inside bulky, movement-inhibiting space suits. “If everything is more or less contained,” he said, “my guess is that an investigator would have quite an easy time on Mars compared to investigations on Earth, given the relatively static nature of the situation.” Look at the data logs; make an arrest. It really could be that simple.

Illustration by Matt Chinworth.

As Paige spoke, I was reminded of a classic plot of the modern-day detective story: the locked-room mystery. These plots, which often feature a small group of people stunned by an unexplained murder in their midst, have become a mainstay of popular crime fiction. By definition, one of the survivors is guilty; the murderer should therefore be easy to find. Whether the story is set on an international rail journey, as in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, at a family reunion, in a foreign hotel, or in a scientific lab on Mars, there is, in fact, little reason to believe that such a crime will be easy to solve. At best, some small piece of forensic evidence might give the game away; at worst, the survivors might actually be in conspiracy with one another, making it nearly impossible to uncover the truth.

Paige offered another rationale for his vision of a crime-free Mars: the caliber of the settlers themselves. Fantasies of human life on the Red Planet tend toward a kind of utopian-industrial picturesque: high-tech cities and purpose-built scientific labs populated with responsible adults chosen for their physical fitness, emotional maturity, and rational self-control. We will only send our best and brightest, this narrative goes. After all, the cost, complexity, and risk of getting anyone to the Red Planet will be so extreme that only the most highly vetted individuals will be chosen. These will be people who simply do not pose a criminal risk—and, if no one will break the law, Paige asked, why on Mars would you need cops?

Of course, no matter how resistant to criminal temptation our initial Martian settlers might be, those people will someday have children, and there is simply no way to predict the psychiatric stability of people generations removed from their security-cleared ancestors. If anything, one might actually expect interludes of generational rebellion during which crimes and misdemeanors could become frustratingly common—kids messing with airlocks (with inadvertently fatal consequences) or workers stealing pills from their firm’s medical ward to feed life-altering addictions.

What’s more, it is by no means clear that we will send only our best and brightest to Mars. Consider the case of Australia, infamously settled not by carefully chosen scientist-ambassadors, but partly by criminals involuntarily exiled there by British authorities. Or, for that matter, consider remote oil, gas, and mining operations, whose workers are perhaps just as likely to enjoy a hard drink or two as they are to read philosophy in the peace and quiet of their dorm rooms. It is entirely possible that we will send essentially quasi-sacrificial workers to Mars first, rough-and-ready frontiers-people tasked with taming a harsh environment for those who follow behind.

In this version of the Mars-settlement story, the brutality and isolation involved in terraforming an alien planet so far from home is likely to be mitigated by the same kinds of hard living at which humans already excel on Earth. And with those lifestyles will come crime. Unpopular workers falling to their deaths in remote slot canyons or being crushed beneath industrial equipment—were those really accidents?—might become common. Without some sort of police presence on Mars, those kinds of murders will likely never be investigated, let alone solved.

By far the most convincing counter-argument to Paige’s optimism, however, is that, even here on Earth, well-trained, highly supervised people—even those who know they are likely to be caught—have committed every imaginable kind of felony. There are soldiers who become bank robbers. Olympic athletes who kill. Commercial pilots who crash fully loaded aircraft, deliberately killing everyone on board. Brokers, bankers, and other denizens of Wall Street who commit suicide and murder under conditions of psychological fragility. The idea that human beings sent to Mars will simply be immune to breakdown does not hold—and that’s before we discuss the possibility that, no matter how resilient a person might seem on Earth, life on Mars might lead to cosmic-ray-induced dementia, or that the solitude of the Red Planet might have an adverse “impact on the human psyche.” As Marina Koren has written, referring to future space missions, “Psychological screenings can only predict so much.”


Imagine a criminal armed with a knife has been cornered on a Martian research base, near a critical airlock leading outside. If police fire a gun or even a Taser, they risk damaging key components of the base itself, endangering potentially thousands of innocent bystanders. Other forms of hand-to-hand combat learned on Earth might have adverse effects; even a simple punch could send both the criminal and the cop flying apart as they collide in the reduced Martian gravity. How can police overpower the fugitive without making things worse for everyone?

Josh Gold takes such scenarios seriously. Gold is a fourth-degree black belt in the Japanese martial art of aikido, as well as the co-founder of the Ikazuchi Dojo in Irvine, California. He is also a movement expert and athletic entrepreneur, having consulted for the likes of Disney, Formula 1, and Sony on the performance of the human body in unusual scenarios. Gold is now using his expertise in bodily kinematics to lead what he calls a “cross-functional team” developing the world’s first martial art for space.

A self-confessed science-fiction nerd, Gold is convinced that the question of security in space is neither abstract nor hypothetical. It is very real, he insists, even in the present moment. We already face the prospect of space tourists causing one another harm, he explained to me, let alone astronauts on long-term missions committing acts of belligerence, sabotage, or sexual assault. Even in Mars simulations here on Earth, Gold reminded me, security risks have arisen amongst highly trained, carefully vetted crew members.

“From a law-enforcement or security perspective,” Gold explained, “a lot of our best practices fundamentally break down in zero-G and there are significant implications for them in low-G, as well, for environments like Mars and the moon. Most of our fundamental movement tactics need to be completely revisited.” This includes whether or not we will arm police with guns. On Mars, Gold said, the risks of a missed shot are simply too great, potentially puncturing the wall of a pressurized base. Martian cops will instead need to be armed with hooks, knots, and adhesives, he suggested, not bullets, and this only emphasizes the importance of hand-to-hand self-defense.

Gold’s approach has been to pull techniques from different martial arts—even from non-combat sports such as gymnastics and parkour—filtering them according to their relationship with gravity. According to Gold, Brazilian jujitsu offers a handful of tactics that could be useful in low-gravity combat, including moves of locking and constriction—or “snaking,” in Gold’s words—rather than blunt collision and raw force. Even in aikido, he pointed out, joint locks are often used to pull an opponent off-balance and throw them, but this will need to be rethought for space. “You can imagine,” he said, “in a zero or low-G environment, that you might be twisting a limb in a certain way not to get someone to fall but to reorient them in space.” The result is something more like balletic entanglement than a street fight—and it will change the way police engage with aggressive suspects.

At the moment, of course, it’s difficult to test these concepts, but Gold has been looking for opportunities to trial his martial art on parabolic airplane flights (so-called “vomit comets”), which offer several minutes of weightlessness. He also brought up the possibility of using the International Space Station as a kind of off-world dojo, but the cost of flying experimental astronaut-warriors there remains prohibitive.

For now, he said, it’s a question of advanced computer simulations, experimental movement workshops, and patience. Either way, it’s important that we get this right—and soon. “It’s clear that there is a need for this,” Gold emphasized. “If we want to become an off-world species, then we’re going to have to understand how to keep the peace.”


Charles Cockell thinks that responding to, let alone preventing, crime on Mars will require a more fundamental intervention. Cockell is a political theorist and astrobiologist based at the University of Edinburgh. He has written widely on the political implications of space travel and off-world settlement in such books as The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth and Dissent, Revolution and Liberty Beyond Earth.

Cockell does not mince words when it comes to the unexpected political risks of extraplanetary settlement, about which he is refreshingly cynical. “An extraterrestrial society focused solely on practical objectives with no recourse to a higher purpose,” he warns in The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, “will surely drive its inhabitants to despair and hopelessness as ultimately they begin to question their purpose, their humanity and any meaning in their lives.” If you’re bored out of your mind and you live on a planet where you can’t even breathe the outside air, in a sense why not turn to a life of crime?

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity—even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

What’s more, the power to generate and distribute something as basic as oxygen will give what Cockell called “levers of control” to specific, corruptible individuals. At one point, this inspired Cockell to create a tongue-in-cheek poster to illustrate one of his papers: alluding to classic British posters from WWII, its slogan read, “Grow Houseplants For Liberty.” “The idea,” he said, “is that the more people who grow plants on Mars in their habitats, the more oxygen that’s produced for the Martian atmosphere, and the less that needs to be produced by machines. There’s quite an interesting potential link between agriculture, plant growth, and freedom.” The more you control your own oxygen supply, in other words, the less the Martian state—or a predatory private oxygen firm—controls you.

Cockell took this in a surprising new direction with a 2016 paper called “Exoconfac.” The title is short for “Extraterrestrial Containment Facility,” Cockell’s attempt to lay the ground rules for off-world prison design. Among his more notable conclusions was the idea that, in a low-oxygen environment such as a prison on Mars, wardens might be tempted to use depressurization as a tactic for compliance. Authority figures could withhold air to make prisoners more pliable—or residents of an entire city more easily cowed. For Cockell, politically motivated depressurization should be made literally, physically impossible—that is, prisons in space should be designed so that air-pressure abuse simply cannot occur. This is another reason why imagining a Mars P.D. ahead of time is so important: Without forethought, we have little hope of protecting against these sorts of scenarios.

When I described Cockell’s plans for an off-world prison to Lucianne Walkowicz, she seemed repulsed. “We haven’t figured out the law,” she said, “and we’re already designing prisons.” Trained as an astronomer, Walkowicz is the current chair of astrobiology at the U.S. Library of Congress. She and Cockell might use a different vocabulary—liberty vs. equity, or oppression vs. exclusion—but they share much of the same agenda: ensuring that human beings can live together on other worlds, freed of the burdens of totalitarian politics and governmental repression.

The possibility that we might export unquestioned structures of police brutality or authoritarian racism to another planet is horrific—yet Walkowicz fears it is all too likely. We discussed a video that went viral in the summer of 2017, depicting a white man’s hand using an automatic soap dispenser without difficulty, followed by a black man’s hand that cannot get the same machine to operate. His darker skin never triggers the light sensor; from the machine’s point of view, it’s as if only the white man is there.

Imagine a 2001-like scenario on the Red Planet, Walkowicz suggested, where, instead of HAL gone rogue, a camera-operated airlock or some other system—perhaps vital oxygen-supply gear that relies on facial-recognition algorithms—never turns on for a non-white settler. A person could be left, trapped outside her own home, unable to trigger the airlock or to obtain more oxygen, literally asphyxiating in the biases of someone else’s shoddy computer program. The effects would be both fatal and enraging.

The reminder that we might go all the way to Mars only to find that our unquestioned biases have been programmed into the technical environment itself is a depressing but necessary corrective to the utopian leanings of much post-terrestrial futurism. “There’s nothing magical about space that’s going to cure biases in machine learning, algorithmic policing, or people’s day-to-day interactions,” Walkowicz said.

If we are going to imagine a Mars P.D., then it is imperative that we also imagine that police department’s potential flaws. And we would do well to ask such questions now, before we unwittingly construct an interplanetary dystopia run by cops who shoot first and ask questions later.

Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar's Guide to the City.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published September 14, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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