Can We Terraform Mars?

Discover Terraforming: the process of transforming planets like Mars into habitable environments. Explore the future of space colonization.

Video of the day December 3rd 2019


What Is Terraforming?

You’ve likely heard the word terraforming thrown around a lot but don’t exactly know what it means. So here’s the official definition. Terraforming : is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life. But we talked about in this article

Or in even more basic terms, it’s the process of trying to make a planet that ISN’T Earth and turning it INTO Earth…or something at least very close. Now yes, on the grander scale of things, this seems science-fiction, especially when you consider things like the World Engine from the Man Of Steel movie where massive devices are used to ravage worlds to be more suitable to the incoming lifeforms. And yeah, something like that is FAR beyond what we have right now. However, that doesn’t mean Terraforming is completely off the board.

For example, we technically do terraforming here on Earth. How so? Well, over the course of many years people have planted trees and grasses in areas that were once barren. Transforming them into lush greenlands over what they were before. That is a very basic form of Terraforming, as it made it more habitable to human life.

The question often comes from the notion that if we are to live amongst the stars we would need a planet that is darn close to what Earth is right now. Which is either incredibly rare, or impossible given the candidates that are openly available to us. So thus, we would need to terraform them. But where to start…?

Mars… Some Remodeling Required…

So, if we were to look for another planet to live on in the solar system we are in right now, and we do it from the objective sense…we have two potential candidates. The first is Venus (which I’ll discuss more later) and the second is Mars. Both of which have major problems that need to be overcome in order for us to live happy and healthy lives there. 

For Venus, it’s got land, but its atmosphere is full of gasses we can’t breathe, and the surface is so hot that it could melt most metals. In contrast, Mars has a very thin atmosphere, and is very barren. Water and ice are on it, but only in specific regions. So as you can see, neither of these options are very palatable. However, if we had to choose one, despite being farther to Earth than Venus is, Mars is the logical choice. Mainly because we have more room to work with, and don’t have to deal with deadly gasses choking us or melting everything we make.

But, the planet is still barren, doesn’t have water that was can openly siphon, and its atmosphere is not only thin, it lets large amounts of radiation in. And that speaks nothing to the numerous amounts of meteorites that have crashed onto the surface. So in short, we need to work out a lot of issues, but these issues may indeed be worked out by terraforming. Whether it works or not though is a bit of an issue…

Terraforming Mars Won’t Be Easy

So let’s look at Terraforming not in the scientific sense, but in the logistical one. For us to Terraform Mars, a lot of things would have to come together. A lot of which has to be done here on Earth before even sending it to Mars. Oh, and don’t forget, while we have landed things like rovers on Mars and sent probes and satellites around its orbit…we have yet to try and put people on it. So given that Terraforming would need to be done by hand more than likely? This wouldn’t even be feasible until we actually reach the surface of Mars. Which means at the minimum is about 5 years away if we’re lucky and NASA and SpaceX‘s plans go through.

Alright, so that’s one big hurdle right there, getting to the planet we need to terraform. Then, the second problems is actually trying to make sure that the terraforming can work at all. What do I mean by that? Think about it. We live on Earth, where life is vibrant in all the ways that matter, and then some. It’s relatively easy for us to terraform things on our planet because we know what we need to do in order to get things to work. Which is awesome! But on Mars? That’s a different kettle of fish entirely. To the extent that if we do something on Earth there’s no guarantee it’ll work on Mars. Not the least of which is because our atmosphere is much thicker, richer, and more full of gasses than Mars is.

Which means that just about any attempt to try and terraform Mars would have to start with the atmosphere. Not just so that we can eventually breathe on the planet, that technically isn’t a requirement if we build self-contained colonies, but so that there are no surprises from space that can hinder our progress as well as knowing that the thin atmosphere won’t kill what we’re trying to do.

If all of that sounds expensive…it is.

Mars sunrise

The Money Issue

Right now in the world, there is a major debate going on about terraforming. Not to whether it’s feasible or not, there are plenty of people with plenty of proof that it most likely is plausible (including a proof of concept that I’ll reveal next), but rather, whether it’s financially feasible to try and terraform a planet. Or even a piece of a planet.

First and foremost, there is a ton of money being poured into the research and planning of terraforming. That alone is a fortune, although many research funds are technically helping fund it so that it’s not exactly a government problem. However, should this escalate into terraforming all of Mars? Yeah, that would be a money issue. And not exactly for what you might think.

Because more than likely, if a plausible terraforming strategy were to come to light, then it would be funded by the teams that made it. That’s fair. However, getting that technology to Mars, and then mass replicating it to try and get it to work on Mars (depending on the object or method of teleporting of course) would definitely mean money out of the governments own pockets. Even pooling resources could make terraforming a billion dollar venture, if not higher.

Plus, imagine doing all that work to get the idea made, and pitched, and then approved by the government, shipped off to Mars…only for it to not work at all. Yes, that’s pessimistic, but it’s also a possibility. It also could end up that the ship carrying the people and the terraforming tools doesn’t even make it to Mars for whatever reason. Meaning that all that money went right down the drain.

This is why the debate is raging. Because while terraforming may be our “best chance” to live on Mars, the money it would take to get it to work on Earth, then get it to Mars, then get it to work on Mars consistently and in the right way…may make it a money pit.

Already Planning On Terraforming?

One of the more promising theories however when it comes to terraforming Mars is a discovery that we could use the Greenhouse Effect to make regions of Mars better to live in.

“This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification,” said Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. “Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have.”

But how would this be done? By spreading the surface of Mars with Silica Aerogels, which are porous, and thus when they’re brought into the atmosphere, they can send light through while also helping trap heat:

“Spread across a large enough area, you wouldn’t need any other technology or physics, you would just need a layer of this stuff on the surface and underneath you would have permanent liquid water,” said Wordsworth.

Thanks to the light coming through, photosynthesis would still occur. And with the thicker atmosphere, humanity would be protected from radiation and other harmful things that currently bombard Mars.

While all the details are not worked out yet, this discovery could lead to a very different looking Mars in the future. And while a “regional terraforming” means that we won’t be colonizing the whole planet just yet, it’s a big step in the right direction. Plus, if we can terraform one region, that means we could potentially terraform them all.

What If We Went Even Smaller?

While that particular option is something that is very enticing on various levels, what if we decided to go even smaller? Instead of just working on a region, or to phrase it better a continent, what if we were to work on a tiny little part of Mars to try and make it our own…and then work outward from there? You know, make an island of sorts?

Yes, I know islands are surrounded by water, that’s not the point. Imagine though if we were able to terraform just enough of Mars to get it to be what we need to be in order to make a colony. Even a small one. Which would fit all the models going forth with NASA, SpaceX and beyond. We’re not going to send hundreds of people to Mars at once, that would be foolish. We would send a handful, then groups, and then grow it from there. So, what if we went to make a colony, one that is sealed off from everything Mars “offers” on the outside, and then terraform the inside? The colony would have to have a breathable atmosphere within its bubble, right? And water. So we can use that to try and terraform the ground, prove the technology works, and then go outward from there until we have a planet that can be terraformed as we wish.

It would make it cheaper, it would allow for on-planet testing, and it could pay off…potentially. Though even with the best of plans, there are things that terraforming itself won’t answer immediately.

Battling Mars Itself

It’s easy to think of terraforming as just “remodeling” the planet in our image. But as with remodeling a house, if the foundation isn’t solid, you’re not going to build a good house on it. And no, I’m not referring to the surface of Mars as the foundation, I’m speaking more of the atmosphere and the size of the planet itself.

Let’s start with the atmosphere. We’ve already noted that the atmosphere is thin, so gasses aren’t trapped like on Earth, radiation gets through from space and so on. But something you’re not thinking of in regards to the atmosphere is the pressure it exerts on the planet. Earth has an atmosphere that keeps everything contained, but also pressurized. If you watch sci-fi movies like The Martian, you’ll recall that the place the astronaut lived in had to be pressure sealed due to what is the natural state of the atmosphere. Terraforming can fix that, but it won’t be easy.

Then, even if we get the pressure up to where we can live in without boiling alive (yes, that is what would happen without a pressure suit) we’d need to find a way to breathe. Mars doesn’t have the gasses we need, so we would need to fix that. Add that to the list of natural enemies to Terraforming.

And THEN…there’s gravity. Yeah, forgot about that one, didn’t you? The mass of Mars is smaller than Earth’s, and as a result, the gravity is 38% of what we are used to on Planet Earth. To that end, that would make us weigh less, and act differently in terms of movement on the planet if we can’t institute artificial gravity…which we haven’t worked out yet.

Even if we terraform the planet to make the atmosphere palatable, that doesn’t mean that we can just alter the gravity. That goes beyond pressure and gasses, that’s about mass.

Finally, there’s the magnetosphere of the planet. While one does exist, it’s nowhere near as powerful as Earth’s. Which means that solar winds and radiations can harm the planet. In fact, it already does that. We can’t just fix that automatically. We can build up the atmosphere, but to build that up? May not be possible along the lines we’re thinking.

So Should We Stop Dreaming Of Terraforming?

Given all the hurdles, and even the ones we haven’t discussed yet (like the governments actually agreeing to let this happen on what might be the next planet we colonize), it may seem foolish, or even stupid, to think that terraforming in any way is stupid. But it’s not, like all sciences, it may seem like an impossible endeavor right now, but that’s because we’re facing all these hurdles. It can take just a single breakthrough, a single piece of technology to come to light or to come to someone’s mind and then suddenly BOOM, terraforming isn’t just feasible…it’s possible! Even likely, and possibly even cheap!

Terraforming is an option that we must explore, because when it comes to colonization we NEED to explore every single option that is available to us. Besides, why give up on a dream that could change the world…or more accurately…a world?

Terraforming The Universe

That is ultimately the goal if we can get this to work. If we can figure out how to terraform a planet like Mars, we might just be able to terraform others. Imagine being able to turn Venus from a Greenhouse Effect behemoth into our literal twin planet? Then, we’ll have three planets in close proximity that we can live on.

Then, we can go to places like maybe Titan, or go out of our solar system and start terraforming other planets in order to try and get things to where we need to be to colonize the whole galaxy!

It sounds like a pipe dream right now, sure. But if we get this to work? Then virtually any planet that has landmass and maybe water, or an atmosphere that could sustain us is viable for terraforming. The universe would be open to us, and that’s a cool thought.

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