How Do We Terraform Mars?

Article written: 15 Mar , 2016
Updated: 3 Oct , 2016

As part of our continuing “Definitive Guide To Terraforming” series, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Mars. At present, there are several plans to put astronauts and ever settlers on the Red Planet. But if we really want to live there someday, we’re going to need to do a complete planetary renovation. What will it take?

Despite having a very cold and very dry climate – not to mention little atmosphere to speak of – Earth and Mars have a lot in common. These include similarities in size, inclination, structure, composition, and even the presence of water on their surfaces. Because of this, Mars is considered a prime candidate for human settlement; a prospect that includes transforming the environment to be suitable to human needs (aka. terraforming).

That being said, there are also a lot of key differences that would make living on Mars, a growing preoccupation among many humans (looking at you, Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp!), a significant challenge. If we were to live on the planet, we would have to depend rather heavily on our technology. And if we were going to alter the planet through ecological engineering, it would take a lot of time, effort, and megatons of resources!

The challenges of living on Mars are quite numerous. For starters, there is the extremely thin and unbreathable atmosphere. Whereas Earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and trace amounts of other gases, Mars’ atmosphere is made up of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, along with trace amounts of oxygen and water.

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

Mars’ atmospheric pressure also ranges from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa, which is the equivalent of about 1% of Earth’s at sea level. The thin atmosphere and greater distance from the Sun also contributes to Mars’ cold environment, where surface temperatures average 210 K (-63 °C/-81.4 °F). Add to this the fact that Mars’ lacks a magnetosphere, and you can see why the surface is exposed to significantly more radiation than Earth’s.

On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year. Hence, if humans wanted to live on Mars without the need for radiation shielding, pressurized domes, bottled oxygen, and protective suits, some serious changes would need to be made. Basically, we would have to warm the planet, thicken the atmosphere, and alter the composition of said atmosphere.

Examples In Fiction:

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martians sands in order to release oxygen.

In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy. Credit:

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Trilogy. Credit:

In 1992, author Frederik Pohl released Mining The Oort, a science fiction story where Mars is being terraformed using comets diverted from the Oort Cloud. Throughout the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – which centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization.

In 2011, Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana produced the manga series Terra Formars, a series that takes place in the 21st century where scientists are attempting to slowly warm Mars. And in 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson released 2312, a story that takes place in a Solar System where multiple planets have been terraformed – which includes Mars (which has oceans).

Proposed Methods:

Over the past few decades, several proposals have been made for how Mars could be altered to suit human colonists. In 1964, Dandridge M. Cole released “Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, the Pioneering Work“, in which he advocated triggering a greenhouse effect on Mars. This consisted of importing ammonia ices from the outer Solar System and then impacting them on the surface.

Since ammonia (NH³) is a powerful greenhouse gas, its introduction into the Martian atmosphere would have the effect of thickening the atmosphere and raising global temperatures. As ammonia is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also provide the necessary buffer gas which, when combined with oxygen gas, would create a breathable atmosphere for humans.

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Another method has to do with albedo reduction, where the surface of Mars would be coated with dark materials in order to increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs. This could be anything from dust from Phobos and Deimos (two of the darkest bodies in the Solar System) to extremophile lichens and plants that are dark in color. One of the greatest proponents for this was famed author and scientist, Carl Sagan.

In 1973, Sagan published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars“, where he proposed two scenarios for darkening the surface of Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure they absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions”.

In 1976, NASA officially addressed the issue of planetary engineering in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen and ozone-rich atmosphere.

In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.

This was followed in 1984 by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s book, The Greening of Mars. In it, Lovelock and Allaby described how Mars could be warmed by importing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to trigger global warming.

Artist's concept of a possible Mars terraforming plant. Credit: National Geographic Channel

Artist’s concept of a possible Mars terraforming plant, warming the planet through the introduction of hydrocarbons. Credit:

In 1993, Mars Society founder Dr. Robert M. Zubrin and Christopher P. McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center co-wrote “Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars“. In it, they proposed using orbital mirrors to warm the Martian surface directly. Positioned near the poles, these mirrors would be able to sublimate the CO ice sheet and contribute to global warming.

In the same paper, they argued the possibility of using asteroids harvested from the Solar System, which would be redirected to impact the surface, kicking up dust and warming the atmosphere. In both scenarios, they advocate for the use of nuclear-electrical or nuclear-thermal rockets to haul all the necessary materials/asteroids into orbit.

The use of fluorine compounds – “super-greenhouse gases” that produce a greenhouse effect thousands of times stronger than CO² – has also been recommended as a long term climate stabilizer. In 2001, a team of scientists from the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech made these recommendations in the “Keeping Mars warm with new super greenhouse gases“.

Where this study indicated that the initial payloads of fluorine would have to come from Earth (and be replenished regularly), it claimed that fluorine-containing minerals could also be mined on Mars. This is based on the assumption that such minerals are just as common on Mars (being a terrestrial planet) which would allow for a self-sustaining process once colonies were established.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying that it is added and removed all the time. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

Importing methane and other hydrocarbons from the outer Solar System – which are plentiful on Saturn’s moon Titan – has also been suggested. There is also the possibility of in-situ resource utilization, thanks to the Curiosity rover’s discovery of a “tenfold spike” of methane that pointed to a subterranean source. If these sources could be mined, methane might not even need to be imported.

More recent proposals include the creation of sealed biodomes that would employ colonies of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria and algae on Martian soil. In 2014, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NAIC) program and Techshot Inc. began work on this concept, which was named the “Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed“. In the future, the project intends to send small canisters of extremophile photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria aboard a rover mission to test the process in a Martian environment.

If this proves successful, NASA and Techshot intend to build several large biodomes to produce and harvest oxygen for future human missions to Mars – which would cut costs and extend missions by reducing the amount of oxygen that has to be transported. While these plans do not constitute ecological or planetary engineering, Eugene Boland (chief scientist of Techshot Inc.) has stated that it is a step in that direction:

“Ecopoiesis is the concept of initiating life in a new place; more precisely, the creation of an ecosystem capable of supporting life. It is the concept of initiating “terraforming” using physical, chemical and biological means including the introduction of ecosystem-building pioneer organisms… This will be the first major leap from laboratory studies into the implementation of experimental (as opposed to analytical) planetary in situ research of greatest interest to planetary biology, ecopoiesis and terraforming.”

The "greening of Mars" would be a multi-tiered process, Credit:

The “greening of Mars” would be a multi-tiered process, involving the importation of gases and terrestrial organisms to convert the planet over the course of many generations. Credit:

Potential Benefits:

Beyond the prospect for adventure and the idea of humanity once again embarking on an era of bold space exploration, there are several reasons why terraforming Mars is being proposed. For starters, there is concern that humanity’s impact on planet Earth is unsustainable, and that we will need to expand and create a “backup location” if we intend to survive in the long run.

This school of though cites things like the Earth’s growing population – which is expected to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century – as well as the fact that by 2050, roughly two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in major cities. On top of that, there is the prospect of severe Climate Change, which – according to a series of scenarios computed by NASA – could result in life becoming untenable on certain parts of the planet by 2100.

Other reasons emphasize how Mars lies within our Sun’s “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. “habitable zone), and was once a habitable planet. Over the past few decades, surface missions like NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover have uncovered a wealth of evidence that points to flowing water existing on Mars in the deep past (as well as the existence of organic molecules).

Project Nomad, a concept for terraforming Mars using mobile, factory-skyscrapers. 2013 Skyscraper Competition. Credit: Ares Sainz, Joaquin Rodriguez Nuñez, Konstantino Tousidonis Rial

Project Nomad, a concept for the 2013 Skyscraper Competition that involved mobile factory-skyscrapers terraforming Mars. Credit: Sainz/J.R. Nuñez/K.T. Rial

In addition, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN) (and other orbiters) have provided extensive information on Mars’ past atmosphere. What they have concluded is that roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars had abundant surface water and a thicker atmosphere. However, due to the loss of Mars’ magnetosphere – which may have been caused by a large impact or rapid cooling of the planet’s interior – the atmosphere was slowly stripped away.

Ergo, if Mars was once habitable and “Earth-like”, it is possible that it could be again one day. And if indeed humanity is looking for a new world to settle on, it only makes sense that it be on one that has as much in common with Earth as possible. In addition, it has also been argued that our experience with altering the climate of our own planet could be put to good use on Mars.

For centuries, our reliance on industrial machinery, coal and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect Earth’s environment. And whereas this has been an unintended consequence of modernization and development here on Earth; on Mars, the burning of fossil fuels and the regular release of pollution into the air would have a positive effect.


Infographic showing a cost-estimate and time frame for the terraforming of Mars. Credit: NASA/National Geographic Channel/Discovery Channel

Other reasons include expanding our resources base and becoming a “post-scarcity” society. A colony on Mars could allow for mining operations on the Red Planet, where both minerals and water ice are abundant and could be harvested. A base on Mars could also act as a gateway to the Asteroid Belt, which would provide us with access to enough minerals to last us indefinitely.


Without a doubt, the prospect of terraforming Mars comes with its share of problems, all of which are particularly daunting. For starters, there is the sheer amount of resources it would take to convert Mars’ environment into something sustainable for humans. Second, there is the concern that any measure undertaken could have unintended consequences. And third, there is the amount of time it would take.

For example, when it comes to concepts that call for the introduction of greenhouse gases to trigger warming, the quantities required are quite staggering. The 2001 Caltech study, which called for the introduction of fluorine compounds, indicated that sublimating the south polar CO² glaciers would require the introduction of approximately 39 million metric tons of CFCs into Mars’ atmosphere – which is three times the amounts produced on Earth between 1972 and 1992.

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

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

Photolysis would also begin to break down the CFCs the moment they were introduced, which would necessitate the additional of 170 kilotons every year to replenish the losses. And last, the introduction of CFCs would also destroy the Martian any ozone that was produced, which would undermine efforts to shield to surface from radiation.

Also, the 1976 NASA feasibility study indicated that while terraforming Mars would be possible using terrestrial organisms, it also recognized that the time-frames called for would be considerable. As it states in the study:

“No fundamental, insuperable limitation of the ability of Mars to support a terrestrial ecology is identified. The lack of an oxygen-containing atmosphere would prevent the unaided habitation of Mars by man. The present strong ultraviolet surface irradiation is an additional major barrier. The creation of an adequate oxygen and ozone-containing atmosphere on Mars may be feasible through the use of photosynthetic organisms. The time needed to generate such an atmosphere, however, might be several millions of years.”

The study goes on to state that this could be drastically reduced by creating extremophile organisms specifically adapted for the harsh Martian environment, creating a greenhouse effect and melting the polar ice caps. However, the amount of time it would take to transform Mars would still likely be on the order of centuries or millennia.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept for a NASA manned-mission to Mars (Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0, Feb 2009). Credit: NASA

And of course, there is the problem of infrastructure. Harvesting resources from other planets or moons in the Solar System would require a large fleet of space haulers, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems to make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.

To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.

On the other hand, going the in-situ route – which would involve factories or mining operations on the surface to release CO², methane or CFC-containing minerals into the air – would require several heavy-payload rockets to get all the machinery to the Red Planet. The cost of this would dwarf all space programs to date. And once they were assembled on the surface (either by robotic or human workers), these operations would have to be run continuously for centuries.

There is also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars does have indigenous microbial life (or more complex lifeforms), which many scientists suspect, then altering the ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

Given all of these arguments, one has to wonder what the benefits of terraforming Mars would be. While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long-run, the short-term gains are far less tangible. Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And given the danger, who would want to go?

But as ventures like MarsOne have shown, there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars and act as Earth’s “first-wave” of intrepid explorers. In addition, NASA and other space agencies have been very vocal about their desire to explore the Red Planet, which includes manned missions by the 2030s. And as various polls show, public support is behind these endevours, even if it means drastically increased budgets.

So why do it? Why terraform Mars for human use? Because it is there? Sure. But more importantly, because we might need to. And the drive and the desire to colonize it is also there. And despite the difficulty inherent in each, there is no shortage of proposed methods that have been weighed and determined feasible.In the end, all that’s needed is a lot of time, a lot of commitment, a lot of resources, and a lot of care to make sure we are not irrevocably harming life forms that are already there.

But of course, should our worst predictions come to pass, we may find in the end that we have little choice but to make a home somewhere else in the Solar System. As this century progresses, it may very well be Mars or bust!

We have written many interesting articles about terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s The Definitive Guide To Terraforming, Could We Terraform the Moon?, Should We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria.

We’ve also got articles that explore the more radical side of terraforming, like Could We Terraform Jupiter?, Could We Terraform The Sun?, and Could We Terraform A Black Hole?

Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming Mars

For more information, check out Terraforming Mars  at NASA Quest! and NASA’s Journey to Mars.

And if you like the video, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

, , , , , , , , , ,

15 Responses

  1. Homonymous Anonymous says

    It’s dead, so I don’t see any problem trying to modify it.

  2. Kawarthajon says

    We don’t seem to have any problems dramatically altering the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere, so why not Mars’ as well?

    How big would generators have to be to manage a large-scale magnetosphere? Could we put them in orbit such that they are always on the sunward side of the planet to protect it from radiation, providing a protective shield from the sun, or are cosmic rays of equal concern?

  3. FarAwayLongAgo says

    @Homonymous Anonymous
    I agree with you. But environmentalists don’t. Most religions worship death as the best of all things. They imagine that death is eternal life in paradise, and that it therefor is profitable to sacrifice all real life to achieve holy death.

  4. TedH says

    If, and only if, we find no other liveform we should start transforming Mars to suit our needs. But as I see it… no one really cares. “Why should we stop the change to save some microbes? See the huge potential, the riches this planet offers!” And so any potential and undiscovered live will be doomed… if you like it or not.

  5. Tim Reyes says

    This is a bit of a tongue and cheek video. Call it “Just add Water”. Wait, plenty of that so let’s call it “Hold the Salt”. I doubt if any idea offered here, at least by me, hasn’t been tossed out in some symposium, paper or now web page. As for the ethics, if there is life subsisting underground, under rocks then its unlikely terraforming will happen any time soon, i.e. in the next couple hundred years. Even then, most of the planet is likely to remain as is, for virtue of its aesthetics and nature while colony zones are permitted that utilize huge thin film graphene inflatable domes to enclose Earthly environments. Even at present, its unlikely that bio contamination can be contained and if Martian life exists, measures will be necessary to save samples that could reseed some protected environments on Mars. If life exists, hiding away somewhere on Mars, its likely that our technology will advance sooner to find such life than it will to undertake terraforming.

    However, if we ultimately conclude that no life ever developed on Mars, then if you get past the wrecking ball of a unique environment in our Solar System, then there are brute force methods for kick starting terraforming. Take from the “almost” playbook of the Siding Spring Comet now just 90 days from a close flyby of Mars. Humans could nudge a comet to impact the South Polar Cap to 1) shatter and release more CO2 to thicken the atmosphere, 2) deliver some cometary organic material for the heck of it, 3) enshroud the planet in dust for some years. Its not clear to me that one would get the warming effect one would want but besides using a comet, the atmosphere could be seeded with something extra that would lead to a warmup. The warmup would melt the water ice deposits. I suspect that if you do not increase the heat capacity of the atmosphere, one won’t be able to passively sublimate CO2 from the Poles.

    One might also carefully select the choice of impactor. For example, a Kuiper belt object rich in volatile hydrocarbons as well as water ice might make an interesting impactor. As for a magnetic field, enclosing the whole planet in an artificial field is many centuries away, localized fields not unlike the natural ones embedded in ferrous deposits in the near surface of Mars could protect large domed habitats. Tethers linked to a synchronized Phobos could hold super-conducting rings generating a field atop the atmosphere and over the colonial habitats.

    That’s my 5 cents. Excuse me while I go restock at my local 420 apothecary.

  6. Member
    Aqua4U says

    I say we start small. Find an appropriately sized (100 meter?) and shaped crater on Mars to seal, cover and pressurize. The steep crater walls will be deep enough to provide modest rad. shielding. The green house goes over there…

    Establishing self containing habitats will be key to Mars development. Eventually, larger and larger craters will be spanned. Instead of Terra forming all of Mars, lets start small then eventually build a dome over the entire Hellas Planetia basin? To become the 51st Sate?

  7. Abigaill says

    There is very little similarity between Earth and Mars. Mars is cold, has only a fraction of the gravity, has an atmosphere too thin and too poisonous for us, and the kicker that’s the deal breaker here – no magnetic field.
    Without a planetary magnetic field, we will be forced to live inside shielded enclosures or radiation suits if we ventured outside.
    There is no way we are getting around that. It doesn’t matter if we could create an atmosphere, or get water on the surface – we will be forced to stay indoors.
    If that’s the limitation, then we would be better off colonizing the moon. We’d be under the same restrictions, and at least we have the tech to get there and do it today.

    • The planet’s have similar temperature variations, similarly inclined axes, they are both terrestrial planets, and they both have polar ice caps and an abundance of water. And if we were to thicken the atmosphere, we would be protected from some of the radiation, though shielding might still be required.

    • SteveZodiac says

      A 24h 40 minute day is a distinct advantage

  8. RUF says

    Without a strong magnetic field on Mars, anything we do to modify the atmosphere will be eroded away by solar wind.

    This makes it a colossal waste of time, effort and resources.

    This fact is always overlooked by those who dream of terraforming Mars.

    • mewo says

      The new atmosphere won’t go away overnight. It took billions of years for Mars to end up like it is. If we can terraform it on timescales of decades to centuries, that is *very fast* compared to depletion by solar wind. Then we can definitely replenish the atmosphere quickly enough to compensate.

      • Well, hundreds of millions of years. But yes, that is essentially right. Once terraformed, humanity would be able to use it for eons, and the atmosphere could be replenished regularly once the planet is colonized.

  9. pollydextrous says

    Without a Martian global magnetic field, how long would a greenhouse-produced/thickened atmosphere survive before it is sloughed off by solar wind?

Comments are closed.