Can Mars be Terraformed?
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Mars used to be an Earth-like planet.
Life first appeared on Earth sometime between three and four billion years ago, when Mars was also home to oceans of liquid water flowing rivers and seas. With a thick atmosphere, a magnetosphere to protect against radiation, and a wide range of organic molecules, Mars was well suited for life as we understand it.
Mars may not have remained habitable for very long. The Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere and water long before humans arrived there. It was then hit by an endless stream of energetic charged atoms called the Solar Wind. These atoms stripped away most of the planet’s atmosphere and water, leaving Mars cold and dry.
Can we reverse nature’s effects and terraform Mars back into a liveable place? Here's what it might take.
Brief history of the Red Planet
Mars can be terraformed into an earth-like paradise. Billions of years ago Mars had a magnetic field in an atmosphere of similar density to earth's today Its temperature was above freezing, and it contained massive amounts of surface water which formed an ocean covering the planet's northern hemisphere. There was a climate and maybe even life, however around 4 billion years ago the convection in Mars iron core which generated its magnetic field shut down. With no magnetic field deflecting charged particles, Mars atmosphere was suddenly exposed to the Solar wind. Over the next several billion years, solar wind particles slowly stripped Mars' atmosphere. With no insulation, temperatures plunged. All water either froze or slowly escaped through the atmosphere. Because of this we are now left with the Mars of today, a freezing dusty wasteland.
Problems of terraforming and their solution
However, it is possible to terraform Mars back into a habitable planet. With this comes many obstacles, the first is re-establishing a magnetic field to protect Mars. Several ideas have been introduced to fix this problem. The most promising is probably the Magnetic Shield concept. Between the Sun and Mars there is a special point called LaGrange point 1, where the gravitational attraction between the Sun and Mars cancels out. Therefore, anything that is put there will stay in equilibrium between the two bodies. By placing an inflatable magnetic dipole with a field strength of 1-2 Tesla at this point would create a magnetic field that would deflect solar wind particles far enough to shield the entirety of Mars. By simply adding this shield researchers have predicted that a greenhouse effect would begin on Mars. Over millions of years this would increase the planet's temperature by about 7 degrees Celsius, facilitating the melting of Mars polar ice. Eventually one-seventh of the planet's former oceans would be restored.
While protecting Mars from the solar wind would be a huge feat, we could do much more to speed up the terraforming process. Currently Mars has an atmospheric pressure of around 0.006 Bars compared to earth's one bar at sea level. Many ideas have been proposed to thicken it. Mars has two polar ice caps composed of both water ice and frozen Carbon Dioxide or dry ice. If we release large amounts of short-lived but extremely powerful greenhouse gases such as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), this will lead to a temporary greenhouse effect. The heating from this would turn some of the polar ice caps into gas. This gas would add to the greenhouse effect raising temperatures and causing more ice to become gas. Eventually, all of the ice would turn into atmosphere doubling the planet's atmospheric pressure. This process would require around 39 million tons of Chlorofluorocarbons, three times the amount produced on earth between 1972 and 1992. This amount could be produced on Mars and nuclear-powered factories with local materials.
In addition to vaporizing ice caps, if Mars regolith was heated, the CO2 attached to it would eventually be released. This would add about .04 Bars of pressure a major increase. Lastly shallow Carbon-bearing minerals and ice clathrates could be mined and heated releasing another .069 bars of pressure. With all these methods Mars atmosphere could be eated enough to allow for the presence of liquid water. There would be weather and a global ocean covering the northern hemisphere.
Still though Mars would be far from habitable. All this would increase the pressure to only 6.9% of Earth's. To raise this level, it's been hypothesized that carbon-bearing minerals deep in the crust could be mined and heated this could raise pressure levels up to 1 bar. However currently the quantity of these minerals is unknown, and this process would be incredibly difficult. Another solution is diverting Ammonia-rich comets in the outer solar system to collide with Mars. This ammonia would quickly break down into Hydrogen and Nitrogen thickening the atmosphere. Lastly, we could import Hydrocarbons or Carbon Dioxide from Earth, Venus, or Saturn's moon Titan. These combined sources could get Mars atmosphere up to one Bar. People would be able to walk on Mars surface with no pressure suit and would only need a mask providing breathable air.
But this is not enough. We want a breathable atmosphere. At this point, Mars atmosphere would be primarily Carbon Dioxide, however for humans breathing any atmosphere over 1% Carbon Dioxide would cause drowsiness and anything over 10% would likely mean death. To reduce the concentration of Carbon Dioxide while increasing oxygen, Mars will go green!
Right now, Martian soil has about a 0.5 percent concentration of Perchlorate which is toxic to humans. In fact, it will provide a major health threat for early astronauts. However, some bacteria naturally consume perchlorate, these bacteria combined with filtering systems can eliminate the toxic chemical. Meanwhile we can release microbes and mosses around the planet. These will spread making healthy soil while turning Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen.
During this time, Ozone will also be mass-produced to establish an artificial Ozone layer. Slowly larger plants will be incorporated into the environment. Fertilizer will help lighten and enrich the soil. However, due to the relatively low light levels on Mars, only certain plants will be able to survive. Gradually, Martian forests, grasslands, coral reefs, and other habitats will develop. Farmland will be established growing food for humanity's expanding interplanetary population. And finally, after adjusting it to perfection the Martian atmosphere will be breathable.
Gravity and seasons on Mars
Over millions of years, due to Mars small size and therefore minimal escape velocity some of this atmosphere will slowly escape. However, occasional resource imports will manage this. With everything in place animals will be released into the wild and millions will emigrate to the planet.
Still though, life on terraformed Mars would be very different from Earth. The gravity would be only 38% of Earth's. Which local populations would have to adjust to. In addition each Martian day would be 24 hours and 37 minutes long, and each year would be 687 days long. Also, there would be a lot less light than earth and with no major moon there would be no tides. Since Mars has a similar tilt to earth, there would still be seasons. However, because Mars has a much more elliptical orbit around the Sun, these seasons would be much more erratic.
With no mountain chains and almost all the water in one hemisphere, the planet's climate would be very different from Earth's. Furthermore, a lack of plate tectonics would mean no recycling of Carbon, water, or land over millions of years. On the positive side though, there would be no earthquakes, volcanoes, or tsunamis. However, there would likely still be huge dust storms. Lastly, the liveable area would be much smaller than Earth's. Mars has only 28 percent of earth's surface area. In review, terraforming Mars is certainly possible. However, it would take hundreds or even thousands of years and would require technology and mega projects beyond humanity's current capabilities. Right now, we should just focus on protecting Earth. What do you think? Will humanity eventually terraform Mars? Let's talk about it in the comments below!
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