The Birth of the Martian Economy

A little over three months ago, a momentous event passed with little notice. The economy of the planet Mars came into existence.

The occasion was marked in Nature, though neither the author of the report nor those directly involved in the achievement were fully aware of the significance of what they achieved on 6 September 2021. Here's the basic story of the accomplishment as they understood it:

After a failed attempt last month, NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully drilled, extracted and stored a sample of Martian rock — the first ever Mars sample destined to be flown back to Earth for study.

“This is a momentous achievement,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.

When the rover first attempted the manoeuvre, on 6 August, the rock it was trying to sample crumbled into powder before making it into a sample tube. The second attempt, on 1 September at a different location several hundred metres away, went smoothly: the drill bit pulled a slim cylinder out of a 70-centimetre-long rock named Rochette. Engineers then paused the process so that they could photograph the core in its sample tube, to ensure it was intact, before sealing the specimen inside days later, on 6 September.

The core from Rochette now rests in Perseverance’s belly, hermetically sealed and ready to wait many years until future spacecraft can retrieve it and any other cores the rover manages to collect. The goal is to gather about 35 cores representing the geological history of Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing site — which was home to a river delta billions of years ago and might contain evidence of ancient Martian life.

Here's a short one-minute video documenting the Perseverance probe's drilling operation:

To be sure, this is not the first drilling operation on Mars, nor it the first time a rock sample has been moved or examined by an automated rover or lander on Mars. What makes this remote, robotically-performed operation different is what was done with the rock sample that was collected. It was put into inventory where it will remain stored until it might be exported from Mars.

These actions differentiate Perseverance's activity from all the missions to Mars that preceded it. That difference is meaningful in an economic sense, because it marks the first change ever recorded in the amount of inventory of a good produced for future interplanetary trade on Mars. We would argue this production along with the intent to transact or trade the produced good now being stored qualifies the production of the rock sample as a genuine economic activity. Without the intent to trade, the rover's work would not be meaningfully different from the activities of say a squirrel storing nuts or a roving herd of buffalo disturbing rocks while grazing on the prairie, which we don't think anyone would classify as economic events.

Let's put an economic value on the rover's economic activity. In this case, the cylindrical rock sample that is approximately 13-mm in diameter and 60-mm long, or rather, 7,964 cubic millimeters in volume. On 23 February 2021, Christie's auctioned a Martian meteorite sample measuring 91 mm x 79 mm x 2 mm (a volume of 14,378 cubic millimeters) for $40,000. Assuming the meteorite's material has a similar density, that would give an estimated value of Perseverance's first Martian rock sample of $22,156.

That's a low end estimate. Christie's also auctioned a smaller sample, measuring 26 mm x 12 mm x 2 mm (a volume of 624 cubic millimeters), for $13,760. If that price is more reflective of the value of the first rock core sample currently held in inventory on Mars, its value would be $175,616.

Since then, the Perseverance rover has collected two more samples. Therefore, based on what we know today, the first estimate of Mars' GDP can be found by multiplying the estimated value of one of its rock samples by three. The product of that math has a huge error band, likely falling somewhere between $66,468 and $526,848 during the current Martian quarter!

The real question though is this the right way to go about estimating GDP on a faraway planet with a robotic population? What really does qualify as economic production in this case? Do any non-human actions qualify as economic activity?

If you can answer these questions, well, the sky is no longer the limit, is it?

Celebrating Political Calculations' Anniversary

Our anniversary posts typically represent the biggest ideas and celebration of the original work we develop here each year. Here are our landmark posts from previous years:

  • A Year's Worth of Tools (2005) - we celebrated our first anniversary by listing all the tools we created in our first year. There were just 48 back then. Today, there are over 300....
  • The S&P 500 At Your Fingertips (2006) - the most popular tool we've ever created, allowing users to calculate the rate of return for investments in the S&P 500, both with and without the effects of inflation, and with and without the reinvestment of dividends, between any two months since January 1871.
  • The Sun, In the Center (2007) - we identify the primary driver of stock prices and describe a whole new way to visualize where they're going (especially in periods of order!)
  • Acceleration, Amplification and Shifting Time (2008) - we apply elements of chaos theory to describe and predict how stock prices will change, even in periods of disorder.
  • The Trigger Point for Taxes (2009) - we work out both when, and by how much, U.S. politicians are likely to change the top U.S. income tax rate. Sadly, events in recent years have proven us right.
  • The Zero Deficit Line (2010) - a whole new way to find out how much federal government spending Americans can really afford and how much Americans cannot really afford!
  • Can Increasing the Minimum Wage Boost GDP? (2011) - using data for teens and young adults spanning 1994 and 2010, not only do we demonstrate that increasing the minimum wage fails to increase GDP, we demonstrate that it reduces employment and increases income inequality as well!
  • The Discovery of the Unseen (2012) - we go where so-called experts on income inequality fear to tread and reveal that U.S. household income inequality has increased over time mostly because more Americans live alone!

We marked our 2013 anniversary in three parts, since we were telling a story too big to be told in a single blog post! Here they are:

  • The Major Trends in U.S. Income Inequality Since 1947 (2013, Part 1) - we revisit the U.S. Census Bureau's income inequality data for American individuals, families and households to see what it really tells us.
  • The Widows Peak (2013, Part 2) - we identify when the dramatic increase in the number of Americans living alone really occurred and identify which Americans found themselves in that situation.
  • The Men Who Weren't There (2013, Part 3) - our final anniversary post installment explores the lasting impact of the men who died in the service of their country in World War 2 and the hole in society that they left behind, which was felt decades later as the dramatic increase in income inequality for U.S. families and households.

Resuming our list of anniversary posts....