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Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons

Should We Terraform Mars?

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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As we continue to explore farther out into our solar system and beyond, the question of habitation or colonization inevitably comes up. Manned bases on the Moon or Mars for example, have long been a dream of many. There is a natural desire to explore as far as we can go, and also to extend humanity’s presence on a permanent or at least semi-permanent basis. In order to do this, however, it is necessary to adapt to different extreme environments. On the Moon for example, a colony must be self-sustaining and protect its inhabitants from the airless, harsh environment outside.

Mars, though, is different. While future bases could adapt to the Martian environment as well, there is also the possibility of modifying the surrounding environment instead of just co-existing with it. This is the process of terraforming – essentially trying to tinker with Mars’ atmosphere and environment to make it more Earth-like. Although still a long ways off technologically, terraforming the Red Planet is seen as a future possibility. Perhaps the bigger question is, should we?

One of the main issues is whether Mars has any indigenous life or not – how does this affect the question of colonization or terraforming?

If Mars does have any kind of biosphere, it should be preserved as much as possible. We still don’t know yet if any such biosphere exists, but the possibility, which has only increased based on recent discoveries, must be taken into account. Such a precious discovery, which could teach us immensely about how life arose on both worlds, should be completely off-limits. Small colonies might be fine, but living on Mars should not be at the expense of any native habitats, if they exist. The most likely place to find life on Mars is underground. If the surface is truly as sterile and barren as it seems to be, then colonies there shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It has also been suggested that Martian caves would make ideal human habitats, serving as natural protection from the harsh conditions on the surface. True, but if it turned out that something else was already taking up residence in them, then we should leave them alone. If Mars is home to  any indigenous life, then terraforming should be a non-issue.

What if Mars is lifeless? Even if no life otherwise exists there, that pristine and unique alien environment, so far barely scratched by humans, needs to be preserved as is as much as possible. We’ve already done too much damage here on our own planet. By studying Mars and other planets and moons in their current natural state, we can learn so much about their history and also learn more about our own world in that context. We should appreciate the differences in and variety of worlds instead of just transforming them to suit our own ambitions.

There is also the more current but related problem of contamination. There has been a long-standing protocol, via the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to have all spacecraft going to the Moon or Mars sterilized as much as possible. If bacteria from Earth made it to the Martian surface and survived, it would complicate the search for life there; if a lander or rover was to later identify living organisms in the soil, it might be difficult to determine whether they were just contamination or true native life forms. From both a scientific and ethical perspective, it would seem prudent to try to protect Mars as much as we can from earthly intruders. This applies equally to whether Mars is already inhabited or not. Fortunately, for almost any kind of bacteria or other microrganisms from Earth, it would be very difficult if not impossible to survive on the Martian surface, nevermind flourish. The risk of planet-wide contamination is very negligible, but it is still better to take strict preventive measures than to play with chance.

See also this excellent paper by astrobiologist Chris McKay. Some different views from this article on whether Mars should be protected and preserved at all costs or altered to help life to flourish there, but is a good presentation of the current ideas being put on the table. From the summary:

“Planetary ecosynthesis on Mars is being seriously discussed within the field of planetary science. It appears that restoring a thick atmosphere on Mars and the recreation of an environment habitable to many forms of life is possible. It is important now to consider if it “should” be done. To do this takes us into new and interesting territory in environmental ethics but both utilitarian and intrinsic worth arguments support the notion of planetary ecosynthesis. Strict preservationism arguments do not. It is important to have the long-term view of life on Mars and the possibilities of planetary ecosynthesis. This affects how we explore Mars now. Mars may well be our first step out into the biological universe, it is a step we should take carefully.”

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Nafin
Member
Nafin
December 30, 2011 8:03 PM

If we can confirm that there is no indigenous life on Mars there really would be no reason other than for study to preserve its natural state. There is a difference in utility to be sure, if one decides to terraform, but there is nothing quantitative or qualitatively superior about preserving its natural state.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous
December 31, 2011 4:18 PM

When people eventually travel to other planetary systems, they will encounter many worlds similar to Mars and Venus. The more they know about such worlds, the better their chances of successful colonization will be. For this reason, our long term survival is best secured by maintaining Mars and Venus as wilderness reserves for academic purposes. Rotating habitats built with asteroid materials provide ample opportunity for people to gain access to the resources of this solar system.

Nafin
Member
Nafin
December 30, 2011 8:03 PM

If we can confirm that there is no indigenous life on Mars there really would be no reason other than for study to preserve its natural state. There is a difference in utility to be sure, if one decides to terraform, but there is nothing quantitative or qualitatively superior about preserving its natural state.

Andrey
Guest
December 30, 2011 8:03 PM

We can’t terraform it. It does not have magnetic field to protect the atmosphere from erosion. Mining colonies underground is best we will ever do with Mars.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
December 30, 2011 8:45 PM

Assuming we could create atmosphere, I’m confident we could eventually create it fast enough to outstrip any erosion. We wouldn’t need a magnetic field for that, though we might still have a problem with harmful rays…

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
December 30, 2011 9:37 PM
I think Robinson’s “Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars” series is pretty convincing here. Assuming his numbers are still realistic, a dense and long lived enough atmosphere is doable from sequestered Mars volatiles alone. No need for “The Martian Way” of ice mining Saturn’s rings! What collapsed the atmosphere was too little irradiation relative to the amount of volatiles setting up the usual greenhouse. Robinson presents all sorts of mitigations, from supportive solar mirrors to greenhouse freons that would keep a released atmosphere aloft.* He assumes a geologically active Mars to supply heat for volatile release though, and that may be likely but not certain as of yet. —————– IIRC he suggested a lot of gene engineering to… Read more »
Andrey
Guest
December 30, 2011 8:03 PM

We can’t terraform it. It does not have magnetic field to protect the atmosphere from erosion. Mining colonies underground is best we will ever do with Mars.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
December 30, 2011 8:28 PM

At 38% the graviyt of Earth I wonder what the medical implications would be.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
December 30, 2011 8:47 PM

I think we should focus on reversing our current trend of unterraforming Earth before we think about terraforming other planets…

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
December 30, 2011 9:15 PM

We are increasing productivity, so we are still “manforming”. The problem is to keep at it for a certain amount of population. But it seems the next generation will see a maximum, and thereafter we can have a stabilization at some manageable level.

Eric E
Member
Eric E
December 31, 2011 2:18 AM

We oughtn’t assume that we’re entitled to the level of resources per capita that are used. Earth could be home to many more people if we could invest more wisely in our food choices and energy research. The future is not written

Nafin
Member
Nafin
December 31, 2011 6:11 AM

That is not entirely true, a prime example would be the amount of arable land and it’s proximity to population centers. I.e. the US produces far more produce than it can use but it is not only uneconomical to transport it to countries in need it would be environmentally irresponsible to ramp up transportation to that extent. 7 billion people is pretty close to the reasonable limit if you also want a reasonable standard of living.

Eric E
Member
Eric E
December 31, 2011 6:18 PM
Bull crap. I would do some research about how much food we feed to livestock who are born to die. You could feed someone for an entire week on the grain that goes into 1 pound of beef. Most people in the west are eating meat and dairy daily. I don’t think we NEED more people, but out standard of living is not to be decided on whim, as it has very real consequences for all other life. Our high consumption diets are pricing poorer people our of basic grains. The standard of living you mentioned is often at the expense of our environment and other humans and animals, it’s a discussion not worth closing just yet, especially… Read more »
Richard Ryan Grove
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Richard Ryan Grove
December 31, 2011 8:14 PM

So you are suggesting that we should what? Stop eating meat. I’m sorry Human’s are Omnivores, we eat meat by nature, being a vegetarian is not natural, it is humans forgetting that we are deep down animals and a part of the system.

Our population is at about the highest it should get. Using basic math we can figure out how much space is require to house and feed each person. Exceeding that is irresponsible.

Eric E
Member
Eric E
December 31, 2011 11:14 PM

I’m vegan, and totally alive lol

There are many things from our evolutionary nature that we suppress or totally vanquish.

Me choosing not to eat meat isn’t any less natural than you choosing to eat it

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 1, 2012 12:56 AM
That is the case. The evolution of the brain began because populations of Homo erectus began to scavage meat. Our ancestors were carion eaters. In fact a gene in hyenas has been identified in humans. It could only have made this jump if it got incorporated by a virus which infects hyenas, which H-erectus picked up from hyena saliva. So we were low on the meat food chain; Lion first, next hyenas and then H-erectus might be able chase off the buzzards. In fact our carion ancestory is with us today, for we like to age and cure meats, while pure carnivores like meat completely fresh — even still living. However, we Americans eat far too much meat… Read more »
Nafin
Member
Nafin
December 31, 2011 8:38 PM
Eric, I do not disagree with your basic premise but you’ve flat out ignored my argument. Yes America and most developed nations do waste a huge ammount of food, for example, in order to protect prices some farmers are paid to burn a large amount of their crops. That still doesn’t mean we have the capacity to transport that food to the places that could use it. Secondary argument: go take a look at some satellite images of China. The Chinese have an amazing capacity to utilize the habitable and arable land in their nation. A little known fact is that though Gina is massive it has less habitable space than America. In fact besides the necessity to… Read more »
Eric E
Member
Eric E
December 31, 2011 11:20 PM

Why do we need so many crops?

I’m really not trying to be rude, but think about how much it takes to feed a cow as opposed to just eating that food ourselves.

This is all related to global warming, so I hope the relevance isn’t unappreciated

Nafin
Member
Nafin
January 1, 2012 12:44 AM
You are right, capitalistic interests lead those farmers to grow as much as they can as opposed to as much as they can sell or need. On the topic of meat: vegetarians are afraid of flavor, I spent two years living with them, I know. And it is true that we expend a lot of food to feed cattle, mostly corn, but that is corn that would not make it to market in the first place an if the ranchers did not buy it then it too would be burned (corn is one of the most overproduced crops in the US). That corn could be used to make ethanol but we do not in order to protect oil… Read more »
Eric E
Member
Eric E
January 1, 2012 3:16 AM

We are indeed mostly in agreement, but I think perhaps you misunderstood my point about the corn subsidies. The food waste is not occurring on the level of the crop farmer.

Factory farms are the chief reason that our agricultural system has been pushed to the brink. Grain to meat ratios range from 6:1 to 10:1 pound for pound(I’ve completely left out the factor of fresh water use/contamination).
The amount of waste grains in the States is practically negligible compared to the amounts that are poured into the factory farm system.

I hope I haven’t dragged things too far off topic.

Cheers,
E

Nafin
Member
Nafin
January 1, 2012 1:02 AM
Sorry, to clarify, farmers continue to grow more than they can sell because that land is not paying for itself if they don’t. And if they can’t sell it they know they can still earn some money by burning it at the request of the government. We need a more responsible set of legislators, this may have been an ok policy thirty or forty years ago but there are better solutions, certain congressmen and senators protect policies like this to please their constituency. It would probably be wise to dissolve and reform the senate and possibly redraw the borders of states in order to allow for a more proportional representation of the political interests of the majority of… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
January 4, 2012 9:14 PM

There is no such social drive force to maximize the population. On the other hand we have private interests, and they tend to minimize it. At least when resources are plentiful and risks decrease, that is why people want small families and the population stabilizes.

As for efficiency, we get better all the time. Again due to selfish concern, not due to a want to use up the resources.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous
December 30, 2011 8:57 PM

No. We are stuffing up our planet. Why inflict this on Mars?

Jon Hrubesch
Guest
Jon Hrubesch
December 30, 2011 8:58 PM
I’ve heard that even if you were to spend billions of dollars to terraform Mars it wouldn’t sustain the atmosphere for long anyway. And yes, the lack of a magnetic field would make it even less desirable to bother. So I believe, life or no life existing on the surface, it will always come down to the dollars and cents. The thing I kept thinking about is what if Mars was a lush planet like Earth with plants and animals. Don’t you think we would be throwing money at a project that would send people there asap. I’m sure there would be an outcry to preserve it but the desire to explore and even take what we can… Read more »
Bruce Thomas
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Bruce Thomas
December 30, 2011 9:02 PM

Teraform Mars NO If we plan a base enclose the base leave mars in its natural state. WHY DESTROY ANOTHER PLANET WIT POLUTION. We have made our world unsafe for life why mkake another

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
December 30, 2011 9:12 PM
The question is if we can “manform” Mars. Likely we eventually can, and the motivation exists, so it will be done. (Try to stop Musk from his more or less realistic realization of how to expand into the planet system or at least Mars.) Whether we can or will terraform Mars is a secondary question. Maybe colonizers will find it profitable, maybe not. If existing life makes a wholesale terraforming impossible even after introducing a dense enough atmosphere, it may be possible to locally sterilize the soil deep enough by neutron and gamma emitting nuclear devices. That would set up local habitats that martian life would not easily recolonize. That colonization would endanger science of geology or putative… Read more »
bfmorris
Member
bfmorris
December 30, 2011 9:15 PM

“Such a precious discovery, which could teach us immensely about how life arose on both worlds, should be completely off-limits”

Completely off limits.. Why? So we must designate Mars a gigantic Diane Feinstein wilderness? Putting aside that it appears facts are being assumed that are not in evidence about the origins of life, I think misanthropic-tilted moralities like this should always be questioned and openly examined.

GalileoX
Member
GalileoX
December 30, 2011 10:01 PM
Assuming that the lack of a magnetic field and that the low gravity doesn’t lead to a gradual loss of greenhouse gasses and oxygen and therefore we could terraform Mars, why should a handful (even in the thousands) of macrobiotic species prevent us from doing so? we would eradicate certain species here on Earth if we could and have come very close to doing so on purpose, i.e. polio, Cholera, Yersinia pestis and so on. On Earth one must be careful of disrupting the food chain and the balance we all need to survive but on Mars we would ostensibly be engineering our own system. These are non conscious creatures that are pretty much Natures little automatons and… Read more »
Rick
Guest
December 30, 2011 10:10 PM
Terraforming would be a long process with a comprehensive plan to do it from the get go. To compare changing the environment on Mars to the changes we are making on earth needs to be defined. Usually the problems people have with the changes we make to the Earth are do to with consequences, such as the loss of habitat and extinction of species and generally making the Earth a worse place for humans to live. Preservation in this sense is a very good idea. However the damage we are doing is not deliberate but a side effect of the way we live. Terraforming would be a careful and deliberate process. If there is life on Mars it… Read more »
Rick
Guest
December 30, 2011 10:10 PM
Terraforming would be a long process with a comprehensive plan to do it from the get go. To compare changing the environment on Mars to the changes we are making on earth needs to be defined. Usually the problems people have with the changes we make to the Earth are do to with consequences, such as the loss of habitat and extinction of species and generally making the Earth a worse place for humans to live. Preservation in this sense is a very good idea. However the damage we are doing is not deliberate but a side effect of the way we live. Terraforming would be a careful and deliberate process. If there is life on Mars it… Read more »
Richard Kirk
Member
Richard Kirk
December 30, 2011 10:12 PM
I also recommend reading Chris McKay’s note. He argues that terraforming Mars with an oxygen atmosphere is probably not practical, but it should be possible to use fluorocarbons to warm Mars and make a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere over a hundred years. This may make an atmosphere that could sustain some life, though not ordinary earth animal life. He argues this could last even without a substantial Martian magnetic field. Once he argued that it might be possible, he then analyses the various arguments for and against terraforming Mars. He considers the possibility that there may be lifeforms that we cannot currently detect, and he advises caution. But, supposing we can establish that there is no life on… Read more »
Alanator
Member
Alanator
December 30, 2011 10:20 PM

I`m pretty sure that mars will not be protected from the sun when it becomes a red giant, that is if the Andromeda galaxy does not collide with us first, so I see very little use in terraforming any planet within this zone!

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
December 30, 2011 10:22 PM
I think we need to take into consideration our limitations. We humans are very good at linear thinking. Even nonlinear systems like general relativity or quantum chromodynamics has an underlying linearity to it. Fortunately this way of thinking does permit us to learn what appear to be crucial aspects of the physical universe. So we can cover the “map” of the universe with some regions we understand well, connected by some “roads,” but in between all of this is a domain of nonlinear complexity which can only proximally look at, but not understand well or control. Such complex things are examples like complex soil-ecosystems, geo-hydrodynamics, the process of cloud formation and growth, the hydrodynamics of solar plasmas, convection… Read more »
Eric
Guest
Eric
December 30, 2011 10:26 PM
The only reason the earth is the way it is, is because of the moon flexing the surface crust in a wave as it passes, which keeps the mantle liquefied by the tremendous heat produced. Bend a piece of metal back and forth for a while and see how hot it gets, then imagine never stopping the bending process, how hot would it get? This ripple effect, or wave, causes continental drift, ocean currents, volcanic action, and weather patterns, making a living dynamic planet which sustains life as we know it Mars has no moon, therefore Mars is living a different life than the earth, and trust me planets are alive. So Mars is not dead, but if… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous
December 31, 2011 1:58 AM
I would go to elementary texts if I were you, Eric. Mars has two moons. They don’t exert much tidal effect, as Earth’s moon does. Most of Mars’ atmosphere has been stripped by solar radiation, something our magnetic field protects us from happening here on Earth. The pollution we have tried to stop here would help thicken Mars’ atmosphere and warm it up. By adding arctic tolerant lichens and mosses, we would start oxygen production on the warmed soils once it becomes more arctic-like. Water would be released from the polar regions and permafrost believed to be beneath the Martian dust. Eventually, clouds would form and rain and snow would fall. After that, we would plant grasses and… Read more »
squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
December 31, 2011 11:36 AM

As billions are added to Earth’s population, where else will we go?

I think you’re very optimistic if you think billions of people will migrate off the planet… how many rockets will that take? I consider my own prediction to be far more realistic – as billions are added to Earth’s population, billions more will simply die off as we are consumed by famine and war.

If we’re ever going to elsewhere in the solar system it won’t be because of population pressure.

Eric
Guest
Eric
December 31, 2011 5:33 PM

You missed my point Bill 32805 It needs a moon as big, or in the same proportion as the one orbiting earth, little moons have little effects. and regardless of common belief the moon is all that makes this planet what it is, and it doesn’t need us to continue it’s existence

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous
December 31, 2011 6:00 PM
I never said that billions of people will go to Mars, like a mass exodus. It will take centuries to terraform it. Its not beyond our abilities to go to the moon, Mars, asteroids, etc. As scramjet technology improves, we will escape Earth’s gravity without huge rockets to LEO to orbiting hotels and spacestations. Think 2001:A Space Odyssey. There’s far too much scientific exploring to be done for us to remain a stagnant species on Earth. And some scientists will decide to homestead and raise families on Mars. They are more likely to change it than we are. So please understand that you and I are not deciding this inevitable change now and forever. Its beyond us. We’ll… Read more »
William928
Member
William928
December 31, 2011 2:57 AM

Err….Phobos and Deimos aren’t moons??

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
December 31, 2011 11:27 AM
The only reason the earth is the way it is, is because of the moon flexing the surface crust in a wave as it passes, which keeps the mantle liquefied by the tremendous heat produced. That’s not even vaguely true – current theories point to 20% of the heat being left-over from planetary accretion and 80% of the heat being generated by radioactive decay. The tidal effect of the moon on the heating of the mantle is so negligible as to be non-existent. I think that if we can orbit, photograph, and land on moon like bodies in space it should not be an issue to bring Mars a moon. Yes, taking a picture of a moon is… Read more »
Eric
Guest
Eric
December 31, 2011 5:47 PM

Bull Shit, are you locked in antique science? the ripple effect is enormous, it elongates the earth on the side it’s on. Go ahead and ignore the obvious, there are other examples of this in our solar system, is it really that hard to see it happening here.

There is money to be made evading the simple, and insisting upon a more complicated and unexplainable mysterious source. Science has become it’s own religion, with it’s untouchable figureheads, written texts, and wrong assumptions.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
December 31, 2011 7:48 PM

Try Geodynamics, Cambridge University Press. Tidal heating does occur in some places (Europa an excellent example; it drives tectonic effects on the ice) but not on Earth. Modern science has it down as 20% residual heat from accretion and 80% radioactive decay.

And if you actually crunch the numbers (as has been done to calculate the tidal heating in the interior of Europa), the amount of tidal heat generated in Earth by the Moon is just paltry.

38trippleds
Guest
38trippleds
January 1, 2012 11:25 PM

You crunch the numbers, I know I’m right, and I would be willing to bet it has been overlooked just as tectonic plate movement was until the early 80s, It’s obvious to me but I’m just a stupid nail pounder with a high school education, what would I know

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
January 4, 2012 9:19 PM

Nope, nothing of the Rare Earth is a fact.

The effect of the Moon has changed a lot as the Moon has been slowed by tides and moved out. The inner heat has been sustained, and so has plate tectonics.

Earth is marginal for plate tectonics, but the Moon seems to have nothing to do with it.

Timothy Gaede
Guest
Timothy Gaede
December 30, 2011 10:26 PM

Chris McKay’s paper suggests that extremely low levels of nitrogen on Mars may prevent it from ever having a biosphere as active as Earth’s. He also suggests that the amount of a fluorocarbon like C3F8 needed to push Mars over the edge could “only” be about 0.001% times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. But this still comes to about 100 billion tonnes.

I don’t think the “could we” question has been answered yet. Nevertheless, I think transforming would be a good thing even if Mars has indigenous life.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff
December 30, 2011 11:03 PM

The human race will undeniably need more room in the future, but modifying Mars seems less desirable than constructing such places to live from the raw materials in the asteroids. Why climb down into another gravity well for real estate that requires either complex life support systems or terraforming? Establishing technology that could get us to Mars and inhabit it would be a step forward, but descending to Mars would be a step back. Such technology would apply equally well at creating freely solar-orbiting colonies, without the drawback of requiring heavy launch facilities to get back up from a planetary surface. Mars should be treated like the Galapagos.

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