New Images Show a “Living” Mars

Article written: 2 Jan , 2013
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

A conception of an ancient and/or future Mars, flush with oceans, clouds and life. Credit: Kevin Gill

Over the years, scientists have found evidence revealing that an ocean may have covered parts of the Red Planet billions of years ago. Others suggest that a future terraformed Mars could be lush with oceans and vegetation. In either scenario, what would Mars look like as a planet alive with water and life? By combining data from several sources — along with a bit of creative license — software engineer Kevin Gill has created some gorgeous images showing concepts of what a “living Mars” might look like from orbit, turning the Red Planet into its own version of the Blue Marble.

“This was something that I did both out of curiosity of what it would look like and to improve the software I was rendering this in,” Gill said via email. “I am a software engineer by trade and certainly no planetary scientist, so with the exception of any parts derived from actual data, most of it is assumptions I made based on simply comparing the Mars terrain to similar features here on Earth (e.g. elevation, proximity to bodies of water, physical features, geographical position, etc) and then using the corresponding textures from the Blue Marble images to paint the flat image layer in a graphics program.”

For example, the view below is of the western hemisphere of Mars, with Olympus Mons on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. Gill said the height of the clouds and atmosphere are largely arbitrary and set for the sake of appearance. The terrain is also exaggerated by about 10 times. The orbital “eye” view is about 10,000 km (~6,200 miles) from the surface.


This is a conception view of the Western hemisphere of Mars with oceans and clouds. Olympus Mons is visible on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. Credit: Kevin Gill

“This wasn’t intended as an exhaustive scientific scenario as I’m sure (and expect) some of my assumptions will prove incorrect,” Gill said on Google+. “I’m hoping at least to trigger the imagination, so please enjoy!”

He outlined his steps in creating the images:

A two dimensional digital elevation model was first rendered in jDem846 (an open-source learning project of mine) using the MRO MOLA 128 pix/deg elevation dataset. In that model, I picked a sea level and scripted it such that terrain at or below that level was flat and blue.

The resulting model was then brought into GIMP were I painted in land features using a NASA Blue Marble Next Generation image for the source textures. There is no scientific reasoning behind how I painted it; I tried to envision how the land would appear given certain features or the effects of likely atmospheric climate. For example, I didn’t see much green taking hold within the area of Olympus Mons and the surrounding volcanoes, both due to the volcanic activity and the proximity to the equator (thus a more tropical climate). For these desert-like areas I mostly used textures taken from the Sahara in Africa and some of Australia. Likewise, as the terrain gets higher or lower in latitude I added darker flora along with tundra and glacial ice. These northern and southern areas textures are largely taken from around northern Russia. Tropical and subtropical greens were based on the rainforests of South America and Africa.

Finally, that image was brought back into jDem846 as a layer to be reapplied to the same MOLA dataset, but rendered as a spherical projection (like Google Earth). I scripted the model to apply a three-dimensional cloud layer, add an atmosphere, and dampen specular lighting on dry land and under clouds. There are some other scripted tweaks here and there.

Gill has also done other visualizations of Mars and also the Moon, which can be seen on his G+ or Flickr page.

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29 Responses

  1. I’d love to see Mars terraformed, although I suspect the real problem would be making the atmosphere viable of humans – as it doesn’t have the many different layers Earth does, considering we don’t wholly understand how most of these layers were developed.

    It’s simple(Although advanced -.-‘) enough these days to create a genetically-strong bacteria that could live on the Mars surface, hell, bring a team together – and they’ll genetically engineer one that creates oxygen and lives off the Martian Surface – thereby beginning the creation of an atmosphere we COULD breath in, one of, no doubt, thousands of stages required to make Mars habitable.

    It’s something I have little doubt WON’T be done, at least, some day (Providing our race survives the next few hundred years)

    That said, the Mars surface is pretty radioactive (Correct me if I’m wrong), so its unlikely we’ll be able to ever move around upon its surface without some kind of anti-radiation suite clinging to us, no matter the vegetation growing around us.

    • The Latinist says

      The surface of Mars itself is not particularly radioactive as far as I know. Although I have no doubt that it emits background radiation due to decay of various elements in the crust, I’ve never heard that that is significantly higher than background radiation on earth. The issue is not the radioactivity of Mars, but the solar and cosmic radiation with which it is inundated due to its lack of protective magnetic field.

      As far as whether we *should* terraform Mars, that is an interesting question to which I am not sure there is an easy answer. Most certainly I would not support any such terraforming or human habitation until we have conducted an exhaustive search for native life. And if we find, say, unicellular life on Mars, do we have the right to destroy it so that we can create a habitat suitable for ourselves?

      • Fons Jena says

        ‘And if we find, say, unicellular life on Mars, do we have the right to
        destroy it so that we can create a habitat suitable for ourselves?’

        That’s a good moral question. As long as we haven’t proven to ourselves that we can be a more ‘life-friendly’ civilization I would say that we should only spread our death here on earth. If we, at some point, start to become a civilized and sustainable species we may have the responsability to spread intelligent life throughout space although it is in contradiction to our task of sustaining natural diversity (which you can only sustain by keeping things separated). But I’m afraid that whatever happens to us the human drive for exploration and expansion will force us to colonize everything possible anyway (which is not necessarily good and it will lead to less diversity if some lifeform exists on Mars)…

  2. Radiation would be key — ideally we’d be able to produce a magnetic field artificially, but doing that on a planet wide scale is Clarketech for sure (as in AC Clarke’s suggestion that sufficiently advanced tech appears as magic to those too primitive to understand it).

    • The Latinist says

      Indeed, I am not at all sure that human beings could adapt to the necessary perpetual enclosure. Certainly for a visit, probably a few hardy souls for a research outpost and even a permanent settlement. But for colonization on a larger scale with people of all the temperaments necessary to create a healthy human civilization? I am doubtful.

    • Richard_Kirk says

      I remember doing some simple sums. You could deflect the solar wind and stabilise and atmosphere with a superconducting cable carrying less than 100 amps running all the way around the equator, if I got my sums right. This makes it sound easy, but in fact it would take the total current human power generation for decades to set up the magnetic field; and it all comes out the moment you break the wire, so it’s not safe. By the time we have the tools to do that sort of thing, we will probably have thought of a better way too.

  3. Mike Petersen says

    It’s all well and good to say that we wouldn’t terraform Mars if we found unicellular life there, but think ahead a little.
    It won’t be long before the Earth becomes uninhabitable by humans…not because of anything we do (or don’t do), but because of the Sun. It is increasing its output at about 10% every billion years or so. That means that in a billion years (give or take a few hundred million) the Earth will be too hot for us.
    Okay. Now project yourself into that future time. Let’s also say we haven’t found any reasonably inhabitable worlds orbiting nearby stars that we could get to in any rational length of time (assuming we don’t invent warp drive or something). The additional heat output of the Sun might just put Mars in the best “Goldilocks” location in the solar system.
    Now, you tell me we wouldn’t terraform Mars at the expense of a few unicellular life forms.

    • lcrowell says

      This sort of thinking drives me a bit crazy. We humans might render this planet uninhabitable by a large number of human beings within this century. Don’t worry about the sun heating up over the next billion or so years.

      It seems a bit out of place to talk about leaving Earth for other planets with the idea of surviving for vast time periods into the future, while at the same time we are demolishing the bio-support system on Earth. Besides, the average duration of a hominid species has been a few hundred thousand years. I suspect we are not any different. The current age this planet is in has been deemed increasingly the anthrocene, which might continue even after collapse of global civilization induced by global warming and related issues. However, the anthrocene will end long before the sun heats up and makes biology impossible on Earth.


    • The Latinist says

      Are you seriously expecting that humanity will exist in even a remotely recognizable form a billion years from now? That is a ridiculous notion. Our species evolved from an unrecognizable primate ancestor in, conservatively, 20 million years. You are talking about an order of magnitude difference.

      Besides, what we have to consider is not what some hypothetical descendant of our species might do in the exigencies of the sun’s evolution, but what would be the moral course for our species today.

      • Hey there nay-sayer… I watch Dr. Who, so I know as a FACT that not only will the human species be around in billions of years AND look exactly the same with a few odd off shoots like cat people and giant bodiless heads, but we’ll do it with tenacity, style and grace! (of course continuously helped along by the good Timelord known only as, “The Doctor”…) So put THAT in your bow-tie and fez it! 😉

      • Such long-term survival oddly seems to favor those with English accents.

      • Donacha love it when space programs talk about the death of the sun as if it were something to be scared of? “In four billion years our sun will expand into a red giant – what will we do then?” I’m always like “Umm.. If we even look like we do now and haven’t left already..”

  4. Tom Watson says

    im sure i read some place that when earth was one continent ‘Pangea’ most of the inland would have been desert due to the fact rain bearing clouds formed out at sea wouldn’t penetrate the centre of the continent, leaving it very inhospitable and dry, with only greenery around the shore line, anyone able to put me right on this ??

    • manofsan says

      But water clouds on Mars float particularly high, don’t they? It’s because of that lower gravity and the denser CO2 atmosphere. Assuming a friendly N2/O2 atmosphere on this idealized Mars, water clouds could still float high enough to make it inland. Also, we don’t know what the weather patterns would be like. There could be some El Nino or monsoon or something that gets the water inland.

      • ITSRUF says

        A large interior desert would also create HUGE hurricanes. If all that hot air baking over the desert makes its way to the coast, it would suck up a lot of moisture and make for one crazy cyclone.

      • manofsan says

        Hurricanes never form over land, they only form and gather strength over the ocean, because they require lots of surface water evaporation to feed them. It’s when hurricanes hit land that they lose strength and fade out.

        But yes, I could see tornadoes forming over land. They already do right now on Mars as it is.

      • A terraformed Mars could bear some resemblance to Australia, my guess.

  5. manofsan says

    Where’s that damn Genesis device when we need it?

  6. lcrowell says

    I am not a planetary geologist by any stretch. I have though pondered whether the Valles Marineris canyon was in the distant past a sort of proto-tectonic region. It looks to me a bit like a spreading center with maybe a graben or basaltic plate in the middle. It could then be something similar to a rift zone or some rump form of the Atlantic spreading region.

    I conjecture this because oceans really involve tectonic plates. The Earth has basaltic and granitic plates as the ocean and continental plates. The occurrence of oceans are then a part of what “lubricates” subduction and tectonic motion of this bimodal crust of the Earth. Without serious tectonic activity these so called oceans that existed 3 billion years ago on Mars might have been more in the way of lakes, inland seas (eg the Caspian sea) or epicretonic seas such as the Mediterranean sea. They were then probably brackish with high salt/brine content, and some of the data from Opportunity seems to bear this out as well.

    If this is the case then the ancient seas on Mars might have fostered the early pre-biotic chemistry for the emergence of life. However, without tectonic activity Mars as a “blue marble” bio-planet was still birthed. The loss of atmosphere meant the loss of seas and lakes and any pre-tectonic activity was then aborted. Besides, Mars as a smaller planet had far less internal energy to drive mantle convection and tectonic plates as seen on Earth.


  7. OldRedned says

    I hereby record and lay claim to the Large Round Island at the top of terra-formed Mars and henceforth it shall be called Old Redland. Passports on application. Interplanetary Banking in strict confidence.

    • No. That land was promised to my ancestors by the ancient Martian spirits in exchange for beads. I have the receipt… somewhere. Oh, and it’s called “Kevinia”.

  8. newSteveZodiac says

    For more detailed dreaming on this subject read Kim Stanley Robinson’s books

  9. Wherez Waldo says

    Mars will never have the gravitational field to hang on to a dense breathable atmosphere

    • The Latinist says

      No, but such an atmosphere might be maintained through electrolysis of asteroid water. It would be a continuous task, but not impossible given sufficient resources.

    • Ray Fowler says

      You are incorrect. Mars can easily hold onto an atmosphere over human timescales (thousands of years) with its mass. Doing the same over geological timescales (millions of years) would require some sort of occasional human intervention to maintain.

  10. Frankhy says

    IMHO, there is something distinctly fishy with the line of reasoning, all too common, that goes:

    “We, the despicable and immoral human race, should in the light of our lack of moral and Universal worth, adopt a strict moral code to refrain from spreading our culture and biology lest it might infringe on the moral rights (granted by whom?) of whatever bacteria there exist.”

    Such a line of reasoning is essentially religious, as it implies some sort of Universal rights for said bacteria irrespective of their lack of consciousness.

  11. ED Mattson says

    We are already there….and beyond.

  12. No way this is true. Both images have imprints of photographic legitimacy: tiny details that a simulation would NEVER be able to include. So, it appears to me, this is an Anonymous contribution to dysinfo, and the reality is, these images are real, and Mars is presently FLOODED, as in Noah’s Flood.

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