What Mars might look like after centuries of terraformation. Image: NASA

Mars: barren, inhospitable and dead. This is how most of us recognize the red planet, yet eons ago our neighboring planet wasn’t just another speck of rock in the infinite of space. We now know for certain that Mars once harbored a thick atmosphere, flowing rivers and quite possibly life. In most respects, many millions of years ago, Mars used to be very similar to Earth. If it was once in a state where it could foster life, then, theoretically at least, this state can be reversed. Enter the fascinating world of Terraforming.

Breathing new life into a barren rock

Mars terraformation

Animated gif: NASA

Terraforming is the process of transforming a hostile environment into one suitable for human life. While the idea has been introduced in many SciFi books or movies, some scientists take terraforming extremely serious. The world famous science communicator, Carl Sagan, once said that he sees an immense potential for science in the search for life on Mars. If life was indeed once present on Mars (it might still be today, though highly unlikely near the surface), then scientists might be able to gather key insights and clues that could explain how the planet become so cold and lifeless as we know it today. Armed with this knowledge, there are (herculean) practical solutions that can be applied in a reverse step process to revert the planet back to life.

[ALSO READ] Flowing water found on Mars

Sadly, Sagan never lived to see the rover missions land on Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the much famed Curiosity. The latter is the biggest and most advanced rover to land on Mars, tasked with the primary mission of identifying signs of ancient Martian life. So far, it’s doing a pretty job having discovered new sings of water and even organic molecules.

If we do get it right, how would a Mars Terraforming scenario look like? Well, according to Christopher McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center at this point the likeliest course of action would be to release immense amounts of chlorofluorocarbons into the Martian atmosphere. CFCs or Freon, as they’re also called, have been widely used as refrigerants, propellants (in aerosol applications), and solvents until they were found to cause massive damage to the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, and consequently were banned. (surprise, surprise! someone’s still using them).

At the same time, CFCs are the most potent greenhouse gases, molecule for molecule. One type of CFC, CFC-12 or “Freon-12” as it is known by its trade name, is 17,700 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A huge payload of CFCs, derived from soil and air and manufactured in factories which would suck up the power equivalent of a large nuclear power plant, would be delivered to Mars and released into the atmosphere. At this point, the CFCs will trap more heat from the sun to the point where surface temperatures would rise by some 4 degrees Celsius. This should be enough to spark a climatic chain reaction. The increasing surface temperatures would vaporize some of the carbon dioxide trapped in the south polar cap, which would end up in the atmosphere and further cause more heating. Scientists estimate this would produce an average temperature rise of 70 degrees Celsius, enough to melt the ice and provide liquid water needed to sustain life. The added liquid water would raise atmospheric pressure to the equivalent of that found in the highest mountaintops on Earth. Far from being survivable, it would be enough to start growing plants and trees that would thrive on CO2 and produce oxygen.

Is terraforming Mars a good idea?

Even so, producing an oxygen-rich atmosphere is just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists would still have to find a way to address the myriad of other problems like:  no magnetic field to shield from radiation and sputtering of the atmosphere; no plate tectonics to recycle carbon and water and rebuild eroded land; No large moon to stabilize the axial tilt and provide tides; much more elliptical orbit, which means much more erratic climate; much higher rate of impacts due to proximity of Jupiter and the asteroid belt; gravity only .38 that of Earth; No mountain chains to break up atmospheric currents and release precipitation; surface covered in toxic perchlorates and asymmetry between hemispheres means all land on one side and all ocean on the other.

The whole process, however, is long and tedious requiring at least a couple hundred years. It’s not like flicking a switch – immense amounts of resources, energy and most likely human lives would have to be sacrificed. So, why would humans want to terraform a planet millions of miles away in the first place? Personally, I believe Mars is the next obvious step for man. If humans are to ever become more than just a mono-planetary species, hopefully an interstellar one, then we need to move our Earthling butts out of here.

Of course, there’s another important concern that needs to be addressed. As we stand today, humans aren’t doing too good a job of taking care of their own planet. A Mars terraforming mission, however, couldn’t start earlier than a couple of decade into the future, maybe even a century. By then, we should have either already blew any chance at living in this planet in peace and prosperity, thus deserving to become extinct, or the world could have made a leap in consciousness. Even so, attempts to produce global warming on Mars will teach scientists to produce the reverse back here on Earth to make up for damage in pollution and deforestation.


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