Terraforming

With Planet Earth becoming densely populated there is constant talk about depleting natural energy reserves, be it water shortages or fossil fuels including gas, coal and oil. We only have to look at our major cities and the pollution surrounding them to see the effects caused by harmful, often manmade gases which in turn are impacting the planet’s atmosphere. There is talk of global warming, melting ice caps, impending ice ages and threat of nuclear war. There is also much publicity about a possible annihilation of mankind from hurtling asteroids and other similar celestial bodies which could hit the Earth at any given time.

There has been much thought about what action could be taken to counteract these measures. There doesn’t seem anywhere to run and certainly no place to hide. Ever heard the expression “Your on another planet” well this could well be a reality in the not too distant future. It has been the subject of many science fiction writers and astronomers but the idea of moving home to another planet could be an option to us more sooner than we think. There have been some crazy ideas about Moon bases and underground cities on Mars but really this is just fiction. It has been scientifically proven that our neighbouring bodies are too inhospitable to sustain human life in their current status unless we are able to change their state. This is where terraforming comes into play. The word “terraform” literally means to transform another planet as to resemble Earth, so that it can support human life.

There has been a huge amount of research into terraforming other planets in our solar system and as a result of this it appears that Mars may be a close contender. Just imagine a time where you can take a holiday or relocate to the red planet. Let’s look in more detail into how this could be achieved.

Mars is the most habitable planet in our solar system for a number of reasons: It is on the border of a region known as the extended habitable zone where greenhouse gases could support liquid water at sufficient atmospheric pressure.  There is a greater amount of water like properties present around the poles albeit frozen and the planet has some substantial gravity. There is also a thin layer of atmosphere surrounding the planet, though at the moment too thin. The Martian day is very close to Earth’s duration lasting 24 hours and 39 minutes. There are seasons much like ours due to the planet possessing a similar axial tilt although they last nearly twice as long due to the Martian year. All in all, these factors give Mars a greater potential to support human life. NASA has long been interested in the future of the red planet. A few years back senior scientist for astrobiology Dr Michael Meyer stated that “Terraforming has long been a fictional topic. Now, with real scientists exploring the reality, we can ask what are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications of transforming Mars.’

There are three main challenges to overcome. The first is low gravity. Although gravity is present, it will not be enough to combat full weightlessness – this also prevents Mars from retaining an atmosphere that is strong enough to sustain life. Secondly, there is the solar radiation. This means that colonists would be continually exposed to harmful cosmic rays. Lastly, there are the effects of space weather. Mars lacks a magnetosphere which in layman terms means it does not possess a shield to protect it against the outside elements and cannot act a like a lid to keep everything inside. The magnetosphere would protect against harmful solar radiation for example and help to retain atmosphere and indeed water which at the moment is lost to space.

To enable terraforming, three major interlaced changes would be required: Building up atmosphere, keeping it warm and keeping this atmosphere from being lost to outer space. At the moment, the atmosphere on Mars is roughly 95 per cent Carbon Dioxide, 3 per cent Nitrogen and just 0.13 per cent oxygen which is bad news for us. CO2 is a greenhouse gas which means it can absorb and emit heat. If we can heat up the planet enough, the Carbon Dioxide would be present near the surface and also enter the atmosphere from frozen reserves around the poles thus building it up. Of course it will still not be breathable but may mitigate the use of pressure suits.

Another method would be to use ammonia as a greenhouse gas. It may be possible to move these particles by way of an external force to send them into Mars’ Atmosphere. Ammonia is high in nitrogen which of course is prevalent in the air around us and provides our atmosphere with a buffer gas – one which adds pressure to a system and controls the speed of combustion not to mention its breathability. Overall Mars would require a buffer gas although not quite as much as Earth requires. Other similar methods would by way of importing hydrogen which as most of you are aware is a common element on this planet and reacts well with carbon dioxide. This reaction would produce heat and water. Lastly, fluorine compounds could be used. These could be used to produce fluorine bearing greenhouse gases which are thousands of times stronger than Carbon Dioxide. This can be done relatively cheaply by sending rockets with payloads on a collision course to Mars. When they crash, they release these payloads into the atmosphere – this would have to be done for at least a decade to have any lasting effect. The overall objective is to force the correct elements into the existing one to create a new atmosphere.

As mentioned previous, another primary objective is to heat the planet and there have been several methods discussed. The use of orbital mirrors has been considered.  These are mirrors made of aluminized polyester film which could be placed in orbit around Mars to direct the sunlight onto the surface. Reducing the reflective properties of the Martian surface would also make efficient use of the incoming sunlight. This could be done by spreading dark dust from its moons such as Phobos or by using miniscule life forms such as algae of bacteria. The ground would absorb the sunlight, warming the atmosphere and would also emit a small amount of oxygen in the process. Lastly, another way to increase temperature would be to direct small asteroids onto the surface. The impact energy would be released as heat and the process would create greenhouse gases. Asteroids could also be chosen for their composition such as ammonia which would also add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. So the release of greenhouse gases and creating a sustainable temperature is paramount to building a habitable atmosphere on Mars.

It can be said that terraforming is beyond the realms of science fiction but it would certainly be a good few years until this would be possible on a planet such as Mars. The technology to carry out the tasks is available and can only improve as time progresses. It will still be a drawn out process however. Even if a decision is made to go ahead, the process would evolve gradually. Initially, space stations would be placed around the planet for further research. The next step would be to create enclosed living quarters on the surface to become acclimatised to the growing atmosphere and carry out further tests; eventually protection suits would no longer be required.  Although there are many good reasons to inhabit the red planet, there will no doubt be questions raised about the cost of terraforming and the usage of resources which would have an impact on our own planet’s growth. There will also be ethical questions raised about interfering with another planet – perhaps there is a very good reason that a planet like Mars is supposed to remain inhospitable. We do not know everything about our own plant and its capabilities let alone another in our solar system. We certainly won’t be living on another planet during our lifetime but the future is uncertain.

Pete Rann

 

Toastmasters speech delivered 2013

© 2014 Pete Rann