A scientist has made a public call for terraforming Mars. For the non science fiction types, that means turning Mars into a place where humans can live. It’s an idea that’s been tossed about a lot, and it’s not a completely crazy idea. Granted it’s awfully risk, but since no one lives on Mars, it’s a risk we can take. The point the scientist made, was that it’s human nature, we’ve been modifying our own planet for ten thousand years, there’s no reason to believe people will treat Mars any different. He in fact thinks there’s a fifty fifty chance humans will walk on Mars “in their shirtsleeves” by the end of the 21st century.
Well, gotta admire his optimism. And the truth is, we are very lucky there’s a planet so nearby that is so close to our needs. Mars is smaller and drier than Earth, and it has a very thin atmosphere that is almost entirely CO2. The atmosphere is about as thick as the air as the air on the top of Everest, so with the proper equipment a person could run around on Mars now. It’s off-the-shelf in fact, a person could order a perfectly usable Mars exploration suit right on the Internet!
True, one would have to carry a big tank of air, and wear thick well insulated clothing, but the beauty part is, Mars only has a third the gravity of Earth. So the typical person could carry over two hundred pounds of clothing and equipment, and still weigh less than they weighed on Earth wearing their birthday suit. The astronauts and explorers that first wander around are going to have fun, it will be dangerous, but not like the almost instant death that a mistake on the Moon would cause. I wonder if the human body can adapt to one third gravity, or would it cause health problems in the long run. I suppose we will find out when we start settling. If we settle Mars before we terraform, its pretty similar to colonizing Antarctica, and that’s under way now. Sure, about one percent of the population per year has a psychotic break because of the extreme conditions, but humans have dealt with worse.
How to make Mars Earthlike is obviously very speculative, but it’s mostly an engineering problem. The basic concept is to melt the southern ice cap, which will release enough CO2 to warm the planet significantly. That should release more CO2 and especially water. At this point primitive hardy plants should be able to survive. The purpose of the plants is to turn the CO2 in the atmosphere into oxygen. The process can be fine tuned or hurried along by firing carefully selected comets into the planet, a simpler process than it sounds. If all goes well, see the image at the top of the page. And yes, we now know Mars had oceans once, there’s no reason to believe it can’t have them again.
Mars has longer years and therefore longer seasons than on earth, and if anything they would be more extreme that Earth’s seasonal variation. The seasons would be about twice as long as on Earth, long warm summers would be nice but a six month winter would be annoying. The first colonists will likely be waves of Canadians. They already deal with nine month winters and no summers, so Mars would be a big improvement. Mar’s Moons are tiny, so the Martian seas will have only the most trivial of solar tides.
On Mars the Sun would be a little over half the size as seen from Earth, sunbathing simply won’t be the same. Earth would be a bright star in the sky, but probably only about half as bright as Venus is from Earth. Mar’s moons are small captured asteroids, nothing like Earth’s giant Moon. Mar’s smaller Moon, Deimos, would be just a very bright star viewed from the ground. Phobos is so close to Mars that from the equator it would appear about a third the size of the Moon. Not too shabby, especially since it would fly overhead every eleven hours! The other saving grace in the Martian night sky is that Jupiter will be noticeably brighter than it appears from Earth during part of the year.
On the plus side, wild terraforming speculation aside, there’s been some good news on the life on Mars front. A few years back tiny trace amounts of methane were spotted in the atmosphere of Mars. This could be a sign of life, since a lot of life creates methane as a waste product. It could also be created by volcanic activity. However, if there was any significant volcanic activity on Mars in the last few hundred years, there should also be detectable sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere. Well, there doesn’t appear to be any. It’s not proof of life, but certainly encouragement to keep looking. Something is creating that methane.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, and it is central to illustrating the post. Credit: SAPAC.)