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Red Planet Blues
December 20, 2013 1:41 PM   Subscribe

The trouble with terraforming Mars...
posted by Artw (73 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought the biggest problem with terraforming Mars is that the mass of Mars is too small to hold the sort of atmosphere that we need. Has anyone given (serious) thought to increasing Mars' mass?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:48 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Um... how?
posted by Artw at 1:49 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


We could send all those copies of the ET atari game for martian landfills.
posted by elizardbits at 1:55 PM on December 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


We could crash Mercury into it. And maybe the moon.
posted by dng at 1:56 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the article:
No magnetic field to speak of, no protection from solar radiation.

Yeah, until you solve that problem, everything else is moot.

Then there's the question of why terraform or colonize Mars or any planet? Going to the bottom of another gravity well doesn't make much sense when there's there's plenty of space in, um, space.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:58 PM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Whenever i read about, or enter discussions of terraforming, i harken to threads like this one and wonder how we will ever reconcile the two sciences.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:58 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


List of Solar System objects by size

Magically dropping Mercury on it would increase it's mass by 40%, but it'd still be only a fifth of an Earth.
posted by Artw at 2:00 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


(No proportion of Earth mass given for ET cartridge game landfill)
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


We'll just have to crash the earth into it instead then.
posted by dng at 2:02 PM on December 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


Mars would be very difficult to terraform -- interestingly, though, high in the atmosphere of Venus (where pressure is around the same as Earth's) could be a more viable place for airborne stations/colonies.
posted by chimaera at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Um... how?

Sounds like a massive undertaking.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


The biggest problem with creating a temperate, oxygenated atmosphere on Mars is that the giant toothed worms tucked away deep below the surface would be attracted topside by the drug-like new air, with the usual horrific outcomes for the humans.
posted by planetesimal at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Even if you rolled up the entire Asteroid Belt, Katamari Damacy style, it wouldn't make that much difference.
posted by Artw at 2:06 PM on December 20, 2013


We need to send Mercury back in time first, then collide it. That way everything will have settled down when we're ready to get terraformin'.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:06 PM on December 20, 2013


I remember reading once that a terrformed Mars would remain habitable for a few thousand years before the atmosphere is reduced back to around its current level.

If this is true (please correct me if not) then that seems long enough for at least a "temporary" home. Spend 100-200 years to terraform it and then sustain life for 4,000 years seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:07 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, on second thought, Venus + Mars = 0.9 Earths. Someone push Venus into Mars!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:08 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


We haven't even been able to do modern life here for 200 without fucking everything up, though. Why would Mars work out better?
posted by elizardbits at 2:08 PM on December 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


Hey! What we've done here is great... IF we were on mars.
posted by Artw at 2:09 PM on December 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


how about we just stop acting like we're all going to get together and make planets habitable through terraforming. We only make planets uninhabitable through terraforming, all liberals know that.

Personally, because of the potential of pre-existing Martian life of some sort, I don't think we should do much of anything there . . . . even the robots we send present ethical dilemmas if we consider that some form of life may still be harbored somewhere on Mars. Let's just leave it to the robots and kick up all the actual dust on our own planet. and then let's just all die.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Keep expanding the space economy. Don't let PKD's ghost down.
posted by planetesimal at 2:11 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just wait until the aliens show up and G'voontform Earth.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:16 PM on December 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


Gotta restart the internal engine. If we could do that, we could just make our own habitats. Same logical result when you think about interstellar travel. If you can do it, you don't really need to.
posted by SkinnerSan at 2:23 PM on December 20, 2013


Object: asteroid 16 Psyche
Alter ego: naked metal core

posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


We won't be terraforming Mars. We'll be living in pressurized habitats and rolling around on the surface in enclosed vehicles. The main thing is -- who's gonna bankroll the colony/colonies? There is, as far as we currently know, no way to get ROI for an established colony there.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:31 PM on December 20, 2013


You'll get nowhere without the Fremen.
posted by jquinby at 2:34 PM on December 20, 2013


Actually, on second thought, Venus + Mars = 0.9 Earths. Someone push Venus into Mars!

already been done.
posted by lester at 2:47 PM on December 20, 2013


That article is way more than about terraforming Mars. It talked about nuclear powered Moon bases, floating Venusian cloud cities and shooting pellets of dry ice from Venus to Mars using rail guns. Great stuff.
posted by lstanley at 2:50 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just like the writer's avatar.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:57 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can imagine him triumphantly raising his arms and yelling "SCIENCE!" after presenting this article from a podium at an open-air meeting, after his crazy hair was blowing in the wind the whole time.

He has a larger profile image here (found via Google image search)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:04 PM on December 20, 2013


Well I'm glad we've gotten on to discussing the article...
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


This article raises an important point about terraforming; that it wouldn't just be a difficult process, but also uncertain as well, with plenty of areas for things to go wrong. We have plenty of environmental management going wrong on Earth; the consequences on Mars would be even more severe.

Honestly, we might be better off trying to terrain the Moon first. Even with It's low gravity it could hold an atmosphere for a couple hundred thousand years, and the scale would be smaller than dealing with Mars.
posted by happyroach at 3:12 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can't we shut up about about terraforming Mars at least until we've finished Venusforming Earth? One thing at a time, guys.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:26 PM on December 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


One of the stories in Terra Nova: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction (Buy It! Because I want English editions of followup volumes!) covers this issue and suggests that the inheritors of Mars will likely be post-humans who build their own Mars for Martians.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:27 PM on December 20, 2013


Can't we shut up about about terraforming Mars at least until we've finished Venusforming Earth?

Yeah, the idea of terraforming Mars or colonizing the Moon seem wildly speculative. There's plenty of room on Earth, along with the various supplies we need to live. There's no need to stay moving off planet anytime soon.

Admittedly it sounds neat, but it would involved a lot of hard work, immense sums of money and probably many deaths as we figure how to live off planet safely.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:35 PM on December 20, 2013


Actually I think the most interesting thing about this article is how it points out that some degree of bacterial contamination is practically unavoidable.

We're going to fuck it up, man. Let's see how far down the rabbit hole we can go.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:38 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


As for unlikely places where it would be easier to live, I was surprised to see that Saturn is high on the list. Not one of Saturn's moons, but Saturn itself; there is a layer in the upper atmosphere that is about the same pressure and temperature range and, because the planet is so light, surface gravity as Earth, where water clouds are known to exist. You could hang out on the open balcony of your balloon gondola wearing nothing but a respirator. And while it's at the bottom of a hugely deep gravity well, Saturn has more surface atmosphere to float in than all the inner planets put together by over an order of magnitude.
posted by localroger at 3:46 PM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Just wait until the aliens show up and G'voontform Earth.

I'm sure we'll have a release date for A Method For Madness any day now.
posted by flaterik at 3:48 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


We could pick some of Uranus and drop it on Mars. Uranus is more than 14x the mass of Earth.
posted by humanfont at 3:59 PM on December 20, 2013


The floating-cities-on-venus idea is glorious. There's a series of blog posts about it that make it seem downright reasonable. The back-of-the-envelope delta-v budget from earth orbit to venus capture is tiny, there's tons of atmosphere to brake with and if you build your rocket just slightly differently it'll just float around in the atmosphere until you go fetch it.
posted by Skorgu at 4:00 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's a mistake to focus on atmosphere when talking about terraforming - the real problem is creating a magnetic field to protect from ionizing radiation. Until that happens, we could live on Mars, but it would only be in habitats that are shielded. This is also why Venus is right out and pretty much anywhere else. If you want to see why this is important, here's a small video that touches on it. It's not just during MCE's that we need the protection. Magnets = life.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:33 PM on December 20, 2013


Why not colonize Earth, first?
posted by Apocryphon at 4:36 PM on December 20, 2013


One possible byproduct of terraforming (or even thinking about it) is that it might give people the scientific, political, and social ability to stabilize our own planet. It's a very bright green environmentalist way to see things.

Thinking about long term projects that account for the future of humanity is a political act. The implications of a considered future cascades backwards to the present.
posted by tychotesla at 4:38 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Throw a few comets at Mars to build up an atmosphere. As the sun leaches the gases away, just toss in more comets every dozen years or so to bulk it back up. Easy peasy.
posted by Eddie Mars at 4:45 PM on December 20, 2013


Brent Parker - Fucking magnetic fields, how do they work?
posted by The Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas at 4:54 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But you need the Oort Cloud generators up and spitting out comets at Mars (like making snowballs) up and running first. Just an engineering problem, really.
posted by planetesimal at 4:56 PM on December 20, 2013


Even after the worst of global warming, even with coming famines, the Gobi Desert will still be an easier place to live than Mars or Venus. The air is breathable, you don't have to worry about radiation and getting supplies is quite a bit simpler. I'm not saying that we shouldn't get ourselves out into space (if nothing else, I'd like to think that it increases our chance of survival as a species), but that we should keep in mind that people still don't have settlements in places that are easier to live in than outer space. I just don't know where we are going to get the funding for such a thing.
posted by Hactar at 5:03 PM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Why not colonize Earth, first?

Have you seen the local wildlife?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:18 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why not colonize Earth, first?

That's actually a great question. There's a lot of surface area (and volume) that we aren't occupying, like the vast majority of Earth's oceans. It would be a lot easier to give people gills than it would be to terraform any planet.
posted by Edgewise at 5:40 PM on December 20, 2013


Vast Freshwater Reserves Found Beneath the Oceans
posted by Artw at 6:00 PM on December 20, 2013


The current amazing lander on Mars was carefully left bereft of a means to find if life already exists, or did exist on Mars. They are going to make sure the liberals have no Martian ground to stand on when they say we have no business on Mars. What a problem? No business on Mars? Let them get crackin'!
posted by Oyéah at 6:01 PM on December 20, 2013


I want them to find those freeze dried Martian Lemurs!
posted by Oyéah at 6:02 PM on December 20, 2013


Why not colonize Earth, first?

Have you seen the local wildlife?


Yeah, didn't you see After Earth? Every life form here has. Evolved. To. Kill. Humans.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:34 PM on December 20, 2013


People saw After Earth?
posted by Artw at 6:55 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


What a strange article. Who is seriously considering terraforming Mars that an article full of rebuttals needed to be written? It's like worrying about balding patterns after a successful head transplant.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:29 PM on December 20, 2013


I am seriously considering terraforming Mars.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:55 PM on December 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


If history has taught us anything, the first step to transforming an inhospital environment is the establishment of a penal colony.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:24 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion of the article in this thread, but what else is new? I read large chunks of it, though not the entire thing. Of course any notion of terraforming Mars is wildly speculative, but I still thought the article was an interesting thought experiment, as it raises all sorts of technological and ethical issues that are worth thinking about. The future—even the speculative future—can help inform the present.

I particularly liked the section on Venus. Floating habitats on top of a thick atmosphere seems like a fascinating notion. It also helped explain how Cloud City doesn't make zero sense!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:30 PM on December 20, 2013


Who is seriously considering terraforming Mars that an article full of rebuttals needed to be written?

Kim Stanley Robinson raised a lot of hopes.
posted by localroger at 6:14 AM on December 21, 2013


I am fine with moving our heavy mining and production offworld
posted by rosswald at 6:55 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have to disagree with the entire thrust of the article. Obviously we don't have the level of technology and energy available to accomplish this feat now but that is a completely separate argument from the point that this is a task that is too complex or difficult to ever do. Ancient Romans weren't going to build the Space Shuttle because of the limitations they had in their time but as technology changed things which weren't possible became possible.
The difference is, if you make a mistake when you terraform a planet, it is likely that you can't "turn back the clock" and undo your mistakes.
Terraforming Mars isn't like baking a cake where adding too much salt can ruin the outcome. Terraforming will be an ongoing process that will take a long time and which will be continuously monitored for instabilities which can and will be corrected. A better analogy would be driving across country where taking a wrong turn slows you down but you still eventually get to your destination.
A single microbe introduced to a subsurface aquifer, or surface habitat, could spread throughout that habitat rapidly, quite possibly within a decade, and soon make major changes to the planet. This might for instance lead to large scale release of methane, a greenhouse gas.
His point here is the seeding life on Mars and transforming the atmosphere is actually quite easy to do and quite likely which undermines the entire argument that changing the atmosphere is difficult. I suppose he is saying that the entire process is difficult to control once started but there is no reason to believe that.
The simple approach takes far longer than expected. Chris McKay estimates 100,000 years for this simple approach to reach a breathable atmosphere, not 1000 years.
This assumption is based on the efficiencies of present day organisms not engineered ones that would be available 500 or even 100 years from now.
All the CO2 gets turned into limestone or other forms of calcite or similar minerals, and is permanently removed from the atmosphere and is extremely hard to release again
Why would this happen? Is there any reason to expect this to occur?
It loses its CO2 into space. We don't yet know how early Mars lost its atmosphere, this is what Maven may clarify. However, high energy particles from the sun can strip a planet of its atmosphere, and on Earth these are kept away by its magnetic field, so it might be because of the lack of a magnetic field on present day Mars.
This is a problem that can't be solved by biological processes that would need be addressed. That doesn't mean that solutions don't already exist.

It loses water continually from its upper atmosphere due to dissociation into hydrogen and oxygen.
This happens on Earth now.
The biological cycles are unstable, or go in a direction not suitable for humans e.g. creates a stable atmosphere, but one with high levels of gases poisonous to humans such as H2S or methane, or the planet goes into a deep freeze again with biological cycles reinforcing the deep freeze (e.g. causing clouds that reflect the sunlight away).
I see these as good outcomes because methane and H2S are excellent feedstocks for archea and bacteria. Releasing all the sequestered methane may actually be a shortcut to producing a more hospitable environment.
Some purely biological issue - a micro-organism or higher organism evolves on our transformed Mars which is either hazardous to humans, a disease or an allergen, or damaging to our crops or animals, etc. Or Mars already has such micro-organisms on it.

This is not realistic based on current understanding of pathogens.
It has much less nitrogen than Earth, which is important in our atmosphere as a buffer (77% of the atmosphere), as well as needed by many plants.

This is another real problem. Nitrogen will likely have to be imported from another source in the solar system unless there are substantial buried deposits.
I am not saying that it is impossible to terraform Mars. It is surely a huge challenge though.
I think everyone would agree with that statement.
posted by euphorb at 7:35 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Get back to me when the heavy lift runs to support the construction of the geosynchronous power satellite constellation are running regularly before thinking about colonizing other planets, ok?
posted by mikelieman at 7:46 AM on December 21, 2013


That evening, back in his room, he watched the environmental news on vid more closely than ever, searching for answers to questions he hadn’t quite formulated. Cliffs were falling. Rocks of all sizes were being shoved out of the permafrost by the thaw-freeze cycle, the rocks arranging themselves into characteristic polygonal patterns. Rock glaciers were forming in ravines and chutes, the rocks pried free by ice and then sliding down gorges in masses that behaved much like ice glaciers. Pingos were blistering the northern lowlands, except of course where the frozen seas were pouring out of the drilling platforms, inundating the land.

It was change on a massive scale, becoming apparent everywhere now, and accelerating every year as the summers got warmer, and the submartian biota grew deeper—while everything still froze solid every winter, and froze a little bit almost every summer night. Such an intense freeze-thaw cycle would tear any landscape apart, and the Martian landscape was particularly susceptible to it, having been stalled in a cold arid stasis for millions of years. Mass wasting was causing many landslides a day, and fatalities and unexplained disappearances were not at all uncommon. Cross-country travel was dangerous. Canyons and fresh craters were no longer safe places to locate a town, or even to spend a night.

Sax stood and walked to the window of his room, looked down at the lights of the city. All of this was as Ann had predicted to him, long ago. No doubt she was noting reports of all the changes with disgust, she and all the rest of the Reds. For them every collapse was a sign that things were going wrong rather than right. In the past Sax would have shrugged them off; mass wasting exposed frozen soil to the sun, warming it and revealing potential nitrate sources and he like. Now, with the conference fresh in his mind, he was not so sure.

On the vid no one seemed to be worrying about it. There were no Reds on vid. The collapse of landforms were considered no more than an opportunity, not only for terraforming, which seemed to be considered the exclusive business of the transnats, but for mining. Sax watched a news account of a freshly revealed vein of gold ore with a sinking feeling. It was strange how many people seemed to feel the lure of prospecting. That was Mars as the twenty-second century began; with the elevator returned they were back to the old gold rush mentality, it seemed, as if it really were a manifest destiny, out on the frontier with great tools wielded left and right: cosmic engineers, mining and building. And the terraforming that had been his work, the sole focus of his life, in fact, for sixty years and more, seemed to be turning into something else....

Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
posted by General Tonic at 9:04 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a problem that can't be solved by biological processes that would need be addressed. That doesn't mean that solutions don't already exist.

Are you purporting that are plans/solutions to create an artificial planet magnetic field? Your link is just a google search of that term. Of which, the top results are just discussion boards. What solution were you talking about?
posted by Brent Parker at 11:57 AM on December 21, 2013


When you click on that link and follow the links here is what you find:

The first result is a discussion where it is demonstrated through back of the envelope calculations that the amount energy embodied in the Earth's magnetic field is about the same as the amount generated by humans over one year, so energy is not the barrier to producing a magnetic field.

The fifth result is a report by two scientists at the National Institute for Fusion Science in Japan and describes a method for producing an artificial magnetic field on earth using superconducting loops encricling the globe.

Other results describe different possible solutions such as using an asteroid to restart Mars' own field.
posted by euphorb at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2013


Once we can upload our consciousness into robot bodies the universe will be ours. We will not need to terraform other worlds so much as make them able to support our maintenance and power facilities.
posted by humanfont at 2:34 PM on December 21, 2013


The perfect environment for a robot would be clean, dry, sterile, and energy rich. The Moon or better any gravity-well free asteroid would be much more attractive than Mars or Venus.
posted by localroger at 2:46 PM on December 21, 2013


No magnetic field to speak of, no protection from solar radiation.

Yeah, until you solve that problem, everything else is moot.


Allow me to put this canard to rest once and for all. We could make Mars generate its own magnetic field if we take a long-view, analog approach. We start with one base camp of say, a million robot workers. Mining operations begin at the floor of Mars' lowest point, the Hellas crater. Burrowing deep into the Martian planet, miners would descend to a depth of 15 miles. From there, they would begin the process of hollowing out the planet, ejecting Martian soil into space through a giant superstructure tube ascending the atmosphere. Simultaneously, an orbiting spacecraft, through a very long tube, is flooding the carved-out space beneath the crust with a thick gel made from particles extracted from space. Over a period of centuries, the robot miners would carve out a core for Mars while the gel would become denser, and hotter. The robots would of course have to be able to withstand tremendous levels of heat and temperature for this to work but with orbiting solar panels generating powerful amounts of electricity they could keep the robots going long enough to see it through.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:38 PM on December 21, 2013


Allow me to put this canard to rest once and for all.

No.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2013


Allow me to put this canard to rest once and for all.

Since you put it that way, it sounds so simple...
posted by kjs3 at 9:16 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


When we do create Moonbase Alpha, we'd best remember not to bother with nuclear waste dump on the opposite side of the Moon. Then we'll be just fine scooting around in our Eagle shuttles!
posted by drinkmaildave at 3:33 PM on December 22, 2013


Simultaneously, an orbiting spacecraft, through a very long tube, is flooding the carved-out space beneath the crust with a thick gel made from particles extracted from space.

Are the space particles made of handwavium?
posted by jsturgill at 9:11 AM on December 23, 2013


We're kind of assuming a lot of energy coming from nowhere in these...
posted by Artw at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2013


My hatred for Kim Stanley Robinson will fulfill all your energy needs.
posted by malocchio at 12:19 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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