Could Martian atmospheric samples teach us more about the Red Planet than surface samples?

Image of the Martian atmosphere and surface obtained by the Viking 1 orbiter in June 1976. (Credit: NASA/Viking 1)

NASA is actively working to return surface samples from Mars in the next few years, which they hope will help us better understand whether ancient life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface billions of years ago. But what about atmospheric samples? Could these provide scientists with better information pertaining to the history of Mars? This is what a recent study presented at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference hopes to address as a team of international researchers investigated the significance of returning atmospheric samples from Mars and how these could teach us about the formation and evolution of the Red Planet.

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Perseverance Sees Drifting Clouds on Mars

Animation showing a series of pre-sunrise images of drifting clouds in the Martian sky taken by NASA's Perseverance rover on March 18, 2023. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Perseverance rover mission provided a bluish pre-sunrise gift above Jezero Crater on March 18, 2022, aka Sol 738, or the 738th Martian day of the mission, with “sol” being the official timekeeping method for Mars missions since one Martian day is approximately 40 minutes longer than one Earth day. And, on this particular sol, the car-sized explorer used one of its navigation cameras (Navcam) to snap images of high-altitude clouds drifting in the Martian sky, which it shared on its officially Twitter page on March 23, 2023.

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Zhurong is Rolling on Mars

China's Zhurong rover on Mars
An image from China's Zhurong rover shows spacecraft hardware in the foreground and Martian terrain in the background. (Credit: CNSA)

On May 22nd, 2021, the Zhurong rover – part of Tianwen-1, China’s first mission to Mars – descended from its lander and drove on the Martian surface for the first time. According to the mission’s official social media account, the rover drove down its descent ramp from the Tianwen-1 lander at 10:40 a.m. Beijing time (07:40 p.m. PDT; 10:40 p.m. EDT) and placed its wheels upon the surface of Mars.

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The Mars Helicopter Could Charge up the Atmosphere Around Itself as it Flies

Plasma globes are a common enough sight in retails stores across the rich world.  If you’ve ever seen one and gotten a chance to touch it, you’ve seen how the plasma will arc toward your touch creating a sense that you’re able to harness electricity like Thor.

That effect does not only take place on Earth – anywhere there is a charge build-up that causes a high enough electrical potential between two points to create an electrical glow or corona. Now a team at NASA think that a large charge build-up might occur when Ingenuity, Perseverance’s helicopter companion, takes to the sky.

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Emirates Mars Mission Arrives at the Red Planet Today!

Artist's impression of the UAE's Hope satellite in space. Credit and ©: UAE Space Agency

On July 19th, 2020, the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) – aka. Al Amal (“Hope” in Arabic) – launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on its way to Mars. This mission, the first interplanetary effort to be mounted by an Arab nation, is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in collaboration with a number of research institutions internationally.

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When Martian Storms Really Get Going, they Create Towers of Dust 80 Kilometers High

The yellow-white cloud in the bottom-center of this image is a Mars "dust tower" - a concentrated cloud of dust that can be lofted dozens of miles above the surface. The blue-white plumes are water vapor clouds. This image was taken on Nov. 30, 2010, by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When a huge dust storm on Mars—like the one in 2018—reaches its full power, it can turn into a globe-bestriding colossus. This happens regularly on Mars, and these storms usually start out as a series of smaller, runaway storms. NASA scientists say that these storms can spawn massive towers of Martian dust that reach 80 km high.

And that phenomenon might help explain how Mars lost its water.

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NASA Supercomputer Simulates the Weather on Mars

A screenshot of a NASA simulation of Martian water-ice clouds. Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/D. Ellsworth

The Martian atmosphere is a lot different than Earth’s. It’s over 95% carbon dioxide, and contains only trace amounts of oxygen and water vapor. But that trace amount of water vapor still plays a pronounced role in the climate.

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Spinning Heat Shield Concept Could Provide a Lightweight Way to Survive Atmospheric Re-entry

CuSat size system and Cargo Bay. Credit: University of Manchester

One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.

Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.

The concept was proposed by Rui Wu, a PhD student from Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). He was joined by Peter C.E. Roberts and Carl Driver – a Senior Lecturer in Spacecraft Engineering and a Lecturer at MACE, respectively – and Constantinos Soutis of The University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute.

The CubeSat-sized prototype heat shield designed by the University of Manchester team. Credit: University of Manchester

To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.

When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.

The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:

“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”

Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.

Wu and his team performing the drop test of their heat shield prototype. Credit: University of Manchester

So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.

The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.

And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:

“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”

When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.

Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:

Further Reading: University of Manchester, Acta Astronica

Flowing Water on Mars Likely Cold and Frosty, Says New Study

In the past, glaciers may have existed on the surface of Mars, providing meltwater during the summer to create the features we see today. Credit: NASA/Caltech/JPL/UTA/UA/MSSS/ESA/DLR Eric M. De Jong, Ali Safaeinili, Jason Craig, Mike Stetson, Koji Kuramura, John W. Holt

Thanks to decades of exploration using robotic orbiter missions, landers and rovers, scientists are certain that billions of years ago, liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars. Beyond that, many questions have remained, which include whether or not the waterflow was intermittent or regular. In other words, was Mars truly a “warm and wet” environment billions of years ago, or was it more along the lines of “cold and icy”?

These questions have persisted due to the nature of Mars’ surface and atmosphere, which offer conflicitng answers. According to a new study from Brown University, it appears that both could be the case. Basically, early Mars could have had significant amounts of surface ice which experienced periodic melting, producing enough liquid water to carve out the ancient valleys and lakebeds seen on the planet today.

The study, titled “Late Noachian Icy Highlands Climate Model: Exploring the Possibility of Transient Melting and Fluvial/Lacustrine Activity Through Peak Annual and Seasonal Temperatures“, recently appeared in Icarus. Ashley Palumbo – a Ph.D. student with Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science – led the study and was joined by her supervising professor (Jim Head) and Professor Robin Wordsworth of Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Extensive valley networks spidering through the southern highlands of Mars suggest that the planet was once warmer and wetter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

For the sake of their study, Palumbo and her colleagues sought to find the bridge between Mars’ geology (which suggests the planet was once warm and wet) and its atmospheric models, which suggest it was cold and icy. As they demonstrated, it’s plausible that during the past, Mars was generally frozen over with glaciers. During peak daily temperatures in the summer, these glaciers would melt at the edges to produce flowing water.

After many years, they concluded, these small deposits of meltwater would have been enough to carve the features observed on the surface today. Most notably, they could have carved the kinds of valley networks that have been observed on Mars southern highlands. As Palumbo explained in a Brown University press release, their study was inspired by similar climate dynamics that take place here on Earth:

“We see this in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, where seasonal temperature variation is sufficient to form and sustain lakes even though mean annual temperature is well below freezing. We wanted to see if something similar might be possible for ancient Mars.”

To determine the link between the atmospheric models and geological evidence, Palumbo and her team began with a state-of-the-art climate model for Mars. This model assumed that 4 billion years ago, the atmosphere was primarily composed of carbon dioxide (as it is today) and that the Sun’s output was much weaker than it is now. From this model, they determined that Mars was generally cold and icy during its earlier days.

Nanedi Valles, a roughly 800-kilometre valley extending southwest-northeast and lying in the region of Xanthe Terra, southwest of Chryse Planitia. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

However, they also included a number of variables which may have also been present on Mars 4 billion years ago. These include the presence of a thicker atmosphere, which would have allowed for a more significant greenhouse effect. Since scientists cannot agree how dense Mars’ atmosphere was between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, Palumbo and her team ran the models to take into account various plausible levels of atmospheric density.

They also considered variations in Mars’ orbit that could have existed 4 billion years ago, which has also been subject to some guesswork. Here too, they tested a wide range of plausible scenarios, which included differences in axial tilt and different degrees of eccentricity. This would have affected how much sunlight is received by one hemisphere over another and led to more significant seasonal variations in temperature.

In the end, the model produced scenarios in which ice covered regions near the location of the valley networks in the southern highlands. While the planet’s mean annual temperature in these scenarios was well below freezing, it also produced peak summertime temperatures in the region that rose above freezing. The only thing that remained was to demonstrate that the volume of water produced would be enough to carve those valleys.

Luckily, back in 2015, Professor Jim Head and Eliot Rosenberg (an undergraduate with Brown at the time) created a study which estimated the minimum amount of water required to produce the largest of these valleys. Using these estimates, along with other studies that provided estimates of necessary runoff rates and the duration of valley network formation, Palumbo and her colleagues found a model-derived scenario that worked.

Was Mars warm and watery (i.e. a blue planet?) or an ice ball that occasionally experienced melting? Credit: Kevin Gill

Basically, they found that if Mars had an eccentricity of 0.17 (compared to it’s current eccentricity of 0.0934) an axial tilt of 25° (compared to 25.19° today), and an atmospheric pressure of 600 mbar (100 times what it is today) then it would have taken about 33,000 to 1,083,000 years to produce enough meltwater to form the valley networks. But assuming for a circular orbit, an axial tile of 25°, and an atmosphere of 1000 mbar, it would have taken about 21,000 to 550,000 years.

The degrees of eccentricity and axial tilt required in these scenarios are well within the range of possible orbits for Mars 4 billion years ago. And as Head indicated, this study could reconcile the atmospheric and geological evidence that has been at odds in the past:

“This work adds a plausible hypothesis to explain the way in which liquid water could have formed on early Mars, in a manner similar to the seasonal melting that produces the streams and lakes we observe during our field work in the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys. We are currently exploring additional candidate warming mechanisms, including volcanism and impact cratering, that might also contribute to melting of a cold and icy early Mars.”

It is also significant in that it demonstrates that Mars climate was subject to variations that also happen regularly here on Earth. This provides yet another indication of how our two plane’s are similar in some ways, and how research of one can help advance our understanding of the other. Last, but not least, it offers some synthesis to a subject that has produced a fair share of disagreement.

The subject of how Mars could have experienced warm, flowing water on its surface – and at a time when the Sun’s output was much weaker than it is today – has remained the subject of much debate. In recent years, researchers have advanced various suggestions as to how the planet could have been warmed, ranging from cirrus clouds to periodic bursts of methane gas from beneath the surface.

While this latest study has not quite settled the debate between the “warm and watery” and the “cold and icy” camps, it does offer compelling evidence that the two may not be mutually exclusive. The study was also the subject of a presentation made at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which took place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodland, Texas.

Further Reading: Brown University, Icarus

How Do We Terraform Mars?

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

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: variety.com
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Trilogy. Credit: variety.com

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: nationalgeographic.com

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 CO2 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 (ISRU), 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: nationalgeographic.com
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: nationalgeographic.com

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: evolo.com/Antonio 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: evolo.com/A.A. 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.

Credit: nationgeographic.com
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.

Challenges:

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 addition of 170 kilotons every year to replenish the losses. And last, the introduction of CFCs would also destroy 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 endeavors, 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.

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