Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Terraforming Mars?

with 21 comments


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.)


Written by unitedcats

June 26, 2007 at 7:11 am

21 Responses

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  1. Wouldn’t discovering native Martian life eliminate or at least delay any effort to terraform the planet? Wouldn’t it be wrong to drive Martians microbes to extinction (or to risk it) by making the planet more like Earth?


    June 26, 2007 at 9:42 am

  2. Kim Stanley Robinson outlined this in his sci-fi trilogy. I think he did an interesting job of describing the science of it as well as the potential interpersonal issues. Anyways, it’s a classic that covers most of the bases.


    June 26, 2007 at 9:53 am

  3. If they find multicellular life on the surface, plants or animals of some sort, yes, that would definitely be a concern. Right now that’s not looking likely, and I can’t see many people getting too upset over Martian microbes. I agree though that there are ethical considerations as well as scientific and engineering ones in an undertaking like this. -Doug


    June 26, 2007 at 9:57 am

  4. Wow, I am surprised by that response. I think the knowledge that could be gained from studying even the most insignificant example of extraterrestrial life would overshadow any desire to terraform Mars. If life was found there I would greatly oppose terraforming.

    Thankfully, the odds of finding life there are extremely small.


    June 26, 2007 at 11:12 am

    • With the earth running out of oil,and the people of many countrys,and rouge nations, willing to to kill everyone in the name of God,not to mention new biological weapons,we all see thousands of babies every day starving to deathin poor countries,we can`t solve our own problems,it must be nice looking at the world through rose colored glasses,and if they do find multicellular life on the surface of Mars,you can be sure more money will be spent on Mars,while more and more people are dieing of starvation,,What is more important?Money is much more important than starving babies in Africa,, (deadicated )capitalists,you work on this earth and everything else is secondary,everybody has to serve somebody,we will never change ,send a lot of people to mars and sooner or later we will kill each other,History repeats it`self,Thats human nature,is what it is,as long as you give the Capitalist Majorty or oppressed Minority whatever there hearts desire,Maybe just maybe we can survive this century,I guess it sounds beautiful teraforming Mars but we can`t even clean our own planet,Beautiful beautiful dreamer,i worked at Sally Anne looking after the poor,i understand how humans treat other humans,to stay a month there,they pay there welfare check with nothing left to see a movie etc,the welfare checks come from the goverment and handed to Sally Ann,Mars Christ,i see no future on earth except more death more hate and more greed


      February 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm

  5. What !

    Promote the global warming of Mars!


    Mars seems to be warming up all by itself though, just like Earth. It seems that the Sun has a lot to do with it..


    June 26, 2007 at 1:45 pm

  6. There’s no life on Mars, of course. The lion is completely a feature of natural processes.


    June 26, 2007 at 5:16 pm

  7. I actually expect that pretty much every celestial body is going to be permeated with life, I’m the guys who think we should be checking the clouds of Venus and Jupiter for starters instead of messing around under rocks. The panspermia theory, I’ve been writing a post on it for ages.

    One of Mar’s ice caps appears to be retreating, it’s premature to call it “global” warming. Mars has a far more dynamic and still poorly understood climate and seasonal picture than Earth because it has a more eccentric orbit. Sadly we lost our Mars weather satellite (The Mars Climate Orbiter) because the US is still using a measurement system from the middle ages, unlike the rest of the planet.

    As always the thoughtful comments are appreciated. —Doug


    June 26, 2007 at 6:17 pm

  8. Doug, I’d go further and say that quantum mechanics indicates life at the subatomic level, if the probabilities may be said to have free will.


    June 26, 2007 at 6:49 pm

  9. And in the opposite direction, our elements are from supernovas, we are star children.


    June 26, 2007 at 6:54 pm

  10. To the earth, we are just appendages.


    June 26, 2007 at 6:57 pm

  11. Yet within the constraints of our ecology, we have free will. I think. :)


    June 26, 2007 at 6:59 pm

  12. And each of us is a universe to our cells.


    June 26, 2007 at 7:01 pm

  13. By sharing words and communicating, we share consciousness with one another. This is the nature of God, all consciousness in combination together.


    June 26, 2007 at 7:03 pm

  14. I recommend the Wikipedia article on panentheism.


    June 26, 2007 at 7:05 pm

  15. This is my take on it and i cannot believe no one, even the highest minded scientist hasn’t at least put it out in speculation, although there is some real possibility in it. WE can and do harnass Uranium * Plutonium for exposiveness on a large scale. What’s the limitation to fire sucessive missiles at MARS with the ingredients to artificially at first release the proper gases to upon impact to create an atmosphere similar to earths, then study this behavior if it indeed could be sustainable in the Martian atmosphere and possible begin to fill areas of the surrounding impact with these Earth supporting gases and measure their affects whether they would either set up or in a lucky scenario, overtake as to not dissapate but sustain for an extended enough length of time to prove the possibility that enough injection of our own gases on a continuing level of launches in this manner, might could begin the first indications of changing the Martian climate more in line with earths?


    July 18, 2008 at 12:52 am

  16. you lets go to mars but we ben to the moon one time so if we do go to mars we got to keep it up not go one time and say why go again


    December 18, 2008 at 1:23 pm

  17. You’d be welcome to try walking around in six millibars of atmosphere (far less than at the top of Everest) wearing no pressure suit, but you wouldn’t last more than a second or two! To all intents and purposes it’s the equivalent of a vacuum. You’d need a suit every bit as protective as you’d need on the Moon. Would take a long time to thicken the atmosphere to the point where we could do without one.

    Ian White

    December 21, 2009 at 7:22 pm

  18. Granted I only did modest Internet research, but the consensus seems to be that a space suit for Mars is vastly easier than one for the moon/full vacuum because the pressure and the temperature on Mars are vastly higher than in a full vacuum environment.

    If you can find a scientific link saying Moon style pressure suits will be needed on Mars, please. enlighten us.


    December 21, 2009 at 9:42 pm

  19. Firstly, I was just drawing attention to the fact that on a site that appears to take a serious scientific interest in Mars, such a glaring mistake was made as saying that the martian atmosphere was comparable in pressure to the summit of Everest (7 millibars versus 300).

    Secondly, let’s take the atmospheric pressure of the moon to be 0 mb. Earth’s atmospheric pressure is ~ 1000 mb. Mars has 7.5 mb, on average. The martian atmospheric pressure is the equivalent of a very good laboratory vacuum. How does that make it vastly greater in pressure than the moon? There is a trifling 7 mb difference between Mars and the moon: the Earth is 1000 mb greater than both, near as makes no difference.

    Thirdly, you cannot say that the temperature of Mars is vastly greater than the moon. By definition, the apollo astronauts were on the daylight side of the moon. Temperatures in those circumstances would be much greater than anything you would ever encounter on Mars.

    Nobody is suggesting there wouldn’t be differences between a Mars suit and a lunar suit, but pressure considerations would be very similar. Both suits would differ from orbital suits. Any trip back to the moon, or to Mars, would involve long planetary EVA’s, so mobility would be a major issue, as one is dealing with bodies that have gravity (moon 16.7% and Mars 38% of Earth’s). Radiation problems would be similar, as neither body has a shielding ozone layer or a magnetosphere.

    A good PDF article on spacesuit design considerations can be found at

    Ian White

    December 22, 2009 at 7:03 am

  20. After all that, I forgot why I came here in the first place! Yes, we should consider terraforming Mars, but only if it proves to be a sterile environment. We have a duty to at least find out if there is any extant life in the solar system, and if we do find it, not to wipe it out. At least not straight away. It could tell us a lot more about ourselves than many people would care to know! Not looking at any particular religious lunatics in particular, just most of them!
    I’m assuming most people on here have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy ‘Red Mars’ , ‘Blue Mars’, ‘Green Mars’. If not, then it is the place to start for a brilliant and scientifically accurate portrayal of a future human presence on a terraformed Mars, complete with Greens, who on Mars are known as Reds (“leave everything as it was”, etc.) You can see it happening. Don’t know which side I’d come down on. Especially if they found life (“If there’s one type here, then there might be another type over there” etc.) As the Lords of ….well at least this solar system, what are our duties and responsibilities? Will we ever be held to account for them? And I’m not talking in a religious sense. I practice at the church of Richard Dawkins. Nuff said.
    It’s a fascinating concept, and one that I, for one, will unfortunately not live to see. I have no doubt though, that I will have descendants who will not be born on this planet.
    Thanks for the space Doug, hope I didn’t p*ss you off too much with the earlier comments.
    Happy Yuletide.

    Ian White

    December 24, 2009 at 5:56 pm

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