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.Continue reading “Zhurong is Rolling on Mars”
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.Continue reading “The Mars Helicopter Could Charge up the Atmosphere Around Itself as it Flies”
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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.Continue reading “Emirates Mars Mission Arrives at the Red Planet Today!”
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.Continue reading “When Martian Storms Really Get Going, they Create Towers of Dust 80 Kilometers High”
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.Continue reading “NASA Supercomputer Simulates the Weather on Mars”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Trilogy – Red 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming 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!
At one time, astronomers believed the surface of Mars was crisscrossed by canal systems. This in turn gave rise to speculation that Mars was very much like Earth, capable of supporting life and home to a native civilization. But as human satellites and rovers began to conduct flybys and surveys of the planet, this vision of Mars quickly dissolved, replaced by one in which the Red Planet was a cold, desiccated and lifeless world.
However, over the past few decades, scientists have come to learn a great deal about the history of Mars that has altered this view as well. We now know that though Mars may currently be very cold, very dry, and very inhospitable, this wasn’t always the case. What’s more, we have come to see that even in its current form, Mars and Earth actually have a lot in common.
Between the two planets, there are similarities in size, inclination, structure, composition, and even the presence of water on their surfaces. That being said, they also have 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. Let’s go over these similarities and the difference in an orderly fashion, shall we?
Sizes, Masses and Orbits:
In terms of their size and mass, Earth and Mars are quite different. With a mean radius of 6371 km and a mass of 5.97×1024 kg, Earth is the fifth largest and fifth most-massive planet in the Solar System, and the largest of the terrestrial planets. Mars, meanwhile, has a radius of approximately 3,396 km at its equator (3,376 km at its polar regions), which is the equivalent of roughly 0.53 Earths. However, it’s mass is just 6.4185 x 10²³ kg, which is around 10.7% that of Earth’s.
Similarly, Earth’s volume is a hefty 1.08321 x 1012 km3, which works out 1,083 billion cubic kilometers. By comparison, Mars has a volume of 1.6318 x 10¹¹ km³ (163 billion cubic kilometers) which is the equivalent of 0.151 Earths. Between this difference in size, mass, and volume, Mars’s surface gravity is 3.711 m/s², which works out to 37.6% of Earths (0.376 g).
In terms of their orbits, Earth and Mars are also quite different. For instance, Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance (aka. semi-major axis) of 149,598,261 km – or one Astronomical Unit (AU). This orbit has a very minor eccentricity (approx. 0.0167), which means its orbit ranges from 147,095,000 km (0.983 AU) at perihelion to 151,930,000 km (1.015 AU) at aphelion.
At its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion), Mars orbits at a distance of approximately 249,200,000 km (1.666 AU). At perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun, it orbits at a distance of approximately 206,700,000 km (1.3814 AU). At these distances, the Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days (1.000017 Julian years) while Mars has an orbital period of 686.971 days (1.88 Earth years).
However, in terms of their sidereal rotation (time it takes for the planet to complete a single rotation on its axis) Earth and Mars are again in the same boat. While Earth takes precisely 23h 56m and 4 s to complete a single sidereal rotation (0.997 Earth days), Mars does the same in about 24 hours and 40 minutes. This means that one Martian day (aka. Sol) is very close to single day on Earth.
Mars’s axial tilt is very similar to Earth’s, being inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (whereas Earth’s axial tilt is just over 23°). This means that Mars also experiences seasons and temperature variations similar to that of Earth (see below).
Structure and Composition:
Earth and Mars are similar when it comes to their basic makeups, given that they are both terrestrial planets. This means that both are differentiated between a dense metallic core and an overlying mantle and crust composed of less dense materials (like silicate rock). However, Earth’s density is higher than that of Mars – 5.514 g/cm3 compared to 3.93 g/cm³ (or 0.71 Earths) – which indicates that Mars’ core region contains more lighter elements than Earth’s.
Earth’s core region is made up of a solid inner core that has a radius of about 1,220 km and a liquid outer core that extends to a radius of about 3,400 km. Both the inner and outer cores are composed of iron and nickel, with trace amounts of lighter elements, and together, they add to a radius that is as large as Mars itself. Current models of Mars’ interior suggest that its core region is roughly 1,794 ± 65 kilometers (1,115 ± 40 mi) in radius, and is composed primarily of iron and nickel with about 16-17% sulfur.
Both planets have a silicate mantle surrounding their cores and a surface crust of solid material. Earth’s mantle – consisting of an upper mantle of slightly viscous material and a lower mantle that is more solid – is roughly 2,890 km (1,790 mi) thick and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium. The Earth’s crust is on average 40 km (25 mi) thick, and is composed of rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium (i.e. igneous rocks) and granite (rich in sodium, potassium, and aluminum).
Comparatively, Mars’ mantle is quite thin, measuring some 1,300 to 1,800 kilometers (800 – 1,100 mi) in thickness. Like Earth, this mantle is believed to be composed of silicate rock that are rich in minerals compared to the crust, and to be partially viscous (resulting in convection currents which shaped the surface). The crust, meanwhile, averages about 50 km (31 mi) in thickness, with a maximum of 125 km (78 mi). This makes it about three times as hick as Earth’s crust, relative to the sizes of the two planets.
Ergo, the two planets are similar in composition, owing to their common status as terrestrial planets. And while they are both differentiated between a metallic core and layers of less dense material, there is some variance in terms of how proportionately thick their respective layers are.
When it comes to the surfaces of Earth and Mars, things once again become a case of contrasts. Naturally, it is the differences that are most apparent when comparing Blue Earth to the Red Planet – as the nicknames would suggest. Unlike other planet’s in our Solar System, the vast majority of Earth is covered in liquid water, about 70% of the surface – or 361.132 million km² (139.43 million sq mi) to be exact.
The surface of Mars is dry, dusty, and covered in dirt that is rich iron oxide (aka. rust, leading to its reddish appearance). However, large concentrations of ice water are known to exist within the polar ice caps – Planum Boreum and Planum Australe. In addition, a permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°, meaning that ice water exists beneath much of the Martian surface. Radar data and soil samples have confirmed the presence of shallow subsurface water at the middle latitudes as well.
As for the similarities, Earth and Mars’ both have terrains that varies considerably from place to place. On Earth, both above and below sea level, there are mountainous features, volcanoes, scarps (trenches), canyons, plateaus, and abyssal plains. The remaining portions of the surface are covered by mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other landforms.
Mars is quite similar, with a surface covered by mountain ranges, sandy plains, and even some of the largest sand dunes in the Solar System. It also has the largest mountain in the Solar System, the shield volcano Olympus Mons, and the longest, deepest chasm in the Solar System: Valles Marineris.
Earth and Mars have also experienced many impacts from asteroids and meteors over the years. However, Mars’ own impact craters are far better preserved, with many dating back billions of years. The reason for this is the low air pressure and lack of precipitation on Mars, which results in a very slow rate of erosion. However, this was not always the case.
Mars has discernible gullies and channels on its surface, and many scientists believe that liquid water used to flow through them. By comparing them to similar features on Earth, it is believed that these were were at least partially formed by water erosion. Some of these channels are quite large, reaching 2,000 kilometers in length and 100 kilometers in width.
So while they look quite different today, Earth and Mars were once quite similar. And similar geological processes occurred on both planets to give them the kind of varied terrain they both currently have.
Atmosphere and Temperature:
Atmospheric pressure and temperatures are another way in which Earth and Mars are quite different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. Mars’ is very thin by comparison, with pressure ranging from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa – which is equivalent to about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.
Earth’s atmosphere is also primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with trace concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules. Mars’ is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. Recent surveys have also noted trace amounts of methane, with an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb).
Because of this, there is a considerable difference between the average surface temperature on Earth and Mars. On Earth, it is approximately 14°C, with plenty of variation due to geographical region, elevation, and time of year. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F) in the Lut Desert of Iran, while the coldest temperature was -89.2°C (-129°F) at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau.
Because of its thin atmosphere and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder, averaging at -46 °C (-51 °F). However, because of its tilted axis and orbital eccentricity, Mars also experiences considerable variations in temperature. These can be seen in the form of a low temperature of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.
The atmosphere of Mars is also quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. The planet also experiences dust storms, which can turn into what resembles small tornadoes. Larger dust storms occur when the dust is blown into the atmosphere and heats up from the Sun.
So basically, Earth has a dense atmosphere that is rich in oxygen and water vapor, and which is generally warm and conducive to life. Mars, meanwhile, is generally very cold, but can become quite warm at times. It’s also quite dry and very dusty.
When it comes to magnetic fields, Earth and Mars are in stark contrast to each other. On Earth, the dynamo effect created by the rotation of Earth’s inner core, relative to the rotation of the planet, generates the currents which are presumed to be the source of its magnetic field. The presence of this field is of extreme importance to both Earth’s atmosphere and to life on Earth as we know it.
Essentially, Earth’s magnetosphere serves to deflect most of the solar wind’s charged particles which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer and expose Earth to harmful radiation. The field ranges in strength between approximately 25,000 and 65,000 nanoteslas (nT), or 0.25–0.65 Gauss units (G).
Today, Mars has weak magnetic fields in various regions of the planet which appear to be the remnant of a magnetosphere. These fields were first measured by the Mars Global Surveyor, which indicated fields of inconsistent strengths measuring at most 1500 nT (~16-40 times less than Earth’s). In the northern lowlands, deep impact basins, and the Tharsis volcanic province, the field strength is very low. But in the ancient southern crust, which is undisturbed by giant impacts and volcanism, the field strength is higher.
This would seem to indicate that Mars had a magnetosphere in the past, and explanations vary as to how it lost it. Some suggest that it was blown off, along with the majority of Mars’ atmosphere, by a large impact during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This impact, it is reasoned, would have also upset the heat flow in Mars’ iron core, arresting the dynamo effect that would have produced the magnetic field.
Another theory, based on NASA’s MAVEN mission to study the Martian atmosphere, has it that Mars’ lost its magnetosphere when the smaller planet cooled, causing its dynamo effect to cease some 4.2 billion years ago. During the next several hundred million years, the Sun’s powerful solar wind stripped particles away from the unprotected Martian atmosphere at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than that of today. This in turn is what caused Mars to lose the liquid water that existed on its surface, as the environment to become increasing cold, desiccated, and inhospitable.
Earth and Mars are also similar in that both have satellites that orbit them. In Earth’s case, this is none other than The Moon, our only natural satellite and the source of the Earth’s tides. It’s existence has been known of since prehistoric times, and it has played a major role in the mythological and astronomical traditions of all human cultures. In addition, its size, mass and other characteristics are used as a reference point when assessing other satellites.
The Moon is one of the largest natural satellites in the Solar System and is the second-densest satellite of those whose moons who’s densities are known (after Jupiter’s satellite Io). Its diameter, at 3,474.8 km, is one-fourth the diameter of Earth; and at 7.3477 × 1022 kg, its mass is 1.2% of the Earth’s mass. It’s mean density is 3.3464 g/cm3 , which is equivalent to roughly 0.6 that of Earth. All of this results in our Moon possessing gravity that is about 16.54% the strength of Earth’s (aka. 1.62 m/s2).
The Moon varies in orbit around Earth, going from 362,600 km at perigee to 405,400 km at apogee. And like most known satellites within our Solar System, the Moon’s sidereal rotation period (27.32 days) is the same as its orbital period. This means that the Moon is tidally locked with Earth, with one side is constantly facing towards us while the other is facing away.
Thanks to examinations of Moon rocks that were brought back to Earth, the predominant theory states that the Moon was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago from a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object (known as Theia). This collision created a massive cloud of debris that began circling our planet, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon we see today.
Mars has two small satellites, Phobos and Deimos. These moons were discovered in 1877 by the astronomer Asaph Hall and were named after mythological characters. In keeping with the tradition of deriving names from classical mythology, Phobos and Deimos are the sons of Ares – the Greek god of war that inspired the Roman god Mars. Phobos represents fear while Deimos stands for terror or dread.
Phobos measures about 22 km (14 mi) in diameter, and orbits Mars at a distance of 9,234.42 km when it is at periapsis (closest to Mars) and 9,517.58 km when it is at apoapsis (farthest). At this distance, Phobos is below synchronous altitude, which means that it takes only 7 hours to orbit Mars and is gradually getting closer to the planet. Scientists estimate that in 10 to 50 million years, Phobos could crash into Mars’ surface or break up into a ring structure around the planet.
Meanwhile, Deimos measures about 12 km (7.5 mi) and orbits the planet at a distance of 23,455.5 km (periapsis) and 23,470.9 km (apoapsis). It has a longer orbital period, taking 1.26 days to complete a full rotation around the planet. Mars may have additional moons that are smaller than 50- 100 meters (160 to 330 ft) in diameter, and a dust ring is predicted between Phobos and Deimos.
Scientists believe that these two satellites were once asteroids that were captured by the planet’s gravity. The low albedo and the carboncaceous chondrite composition of both moons – which is similar to asteroids – supports this theory, and Phobos’ unstable orbit would seem to suggest a recent capture. However, both moons have circular orbits near the equator, which is unusual for captured bodies.
So while Earth has a single satellite that is quite large and dense, Mars has two satellites that are small and orbit it at a comparatively close distance. And whereas the Moon was formed from Earth’s own debris after a rather severe collision, Mars’ satellites were likely captured asteroids.
Okay, let’s review. Earth and Mars have their share of similarities, but also some rather stark differences.
Mean Radius: 6,371 km 3,396 km
Mass: 59.7×1023 kg 6.42 x 10²³ kg
Volume: 10.8 x 1011 km3 1.63 x 10¹¹ km³
Semi-Major Axis: 0.983 – 1.015 AU 1.3814 – 1.666 AU
Air Pressure: 101.325 kPa 0.4 – 0.87 kPa
Gravity: 9.8 m/s² 3.711 m/s²
Avg. Temperature: 14°C (57.2 °F) -46 °C (-51 °F)
Temp. Variations: ±160 °C (278°F) ±178 °C (320°F)
Axial Tilt: 23° 25.19°
Length of Day: 24 hours 24h 40m
Length of Year: 365.25 days 686.971 days
Water: Plentiful Intermittent (mostly frozen)
Polar Ice Caps: Yep Yep
In short, compared to Earth, Mars is a pretty small, dry, cold, and dusty planet. It has comparatively low gravity, very little atmosphere and no breathable air. And the years are also mighty long, almost twice that of Earth, in fact. However, the planet does have its fair share of water (albeit mostly in ice form), has seasonal cycles similar to Earth, temperature variations that are similar, and a day that is almost as long.
All of these factors will have to be addressed if ever human beings want to live there. And whereas some can be worked with, others will have to be overcome or adapted to. And for that, we will have to lean pretty heavily on our technology (i.e. terraforming and geoengineering). Best of luck to those who would like to venture there someday, and who do not plan on coming home!
We have written many articles about Mars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about how difficult it will be to land large payloads onto the surface of Mars, and here’s an article about the Mars methane mystery.
And be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration: Earth and Mars Comparison Chart
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter mission has determined that ancient Mars suffered drastic climate change and lost its thick atmosphere and surface bodies of potentially life giving liquid water because it lost tremendous quantities of gas to space via stripping by the solar wind, based on new findings that were announced today, Nov. 5, at a NASA media briefing and in a series of scientific publications.
The process of Mars dramatic transformation from a more Earth-like world to its barren state today started about 4.2 Billion years ago as the shielding effect of the global magnetic field was lost as the planets internal dynamo cooled, Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Universe Today.
The radical transformation of ancient Mars from a warm world with significant bodies of standing water that could have supported life, to its current state as a cold, arid and desert-like world that’s rather inhospitable to life was caused by the loss of most the planet’s atmosphere as powerful streams of solar wind particles crashed into it and stripped it away due to the loss of the protective magnetic field as the planets core cooled.
“We think that the early magnetic field that Mars had would have protected the planet from direct impact by the solar wind and would have kept it from stripping gas off,” Jakosky told me.
“So it would have been the turn off of the magnetic field, that would have allowed the turn on of stripping of the atmosphere by the solar wind.”
“The evidence suggests that the magnetic field disappeared about 4.2 Billion years ago.”
The period of abundant surface water actively carving the Martian geology lasted until about 3.7 Billion years ago. The loss of the atmosphere by stripping of the solar wind took place from about 4.2 to 3.7 Billion years ago.
With the release of today’s results, the MAVEN science team has accomplished the primary goal of the mission, which was to determine how and why Mars lost its early, thick atmosphere and water over the past four billion years. The atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide.
Since water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, determining its fate and longevity on Mars is crucial for determining the habitability of the Red Planet and its potential for supporting martian microbes, past of present if they ever existed.
“The NASA Mars exploration program has been focused on finding water,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.
“Water is the prime ingredient needed for life. It is a major factor in the climate and for shaping geology. And it is a critical resource for future human exploration.”
This NASA video shows a visualization of the solar wind striking Mars:
Video caption: Created using data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, this visualization shows how the solar wind strips ions from the Mars’ upper atmosphere into space. Credits: NASA-GSFC/CU Boulder LASP/University of Iowa
MAVEN arrived in orbit at Mars just over one year ago on Sept. 21, 2014.
The $671 Million MAVEN spacecraft’s goal is to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere in detail for the very first time by any spacecraft and to explore the mechanisms of how the planet lost its atmosphere and life giving water over billions of years as well as determine the rate of atmospheric loss.
The new MAVEN data have enabled researchers to measure the rate of Mars atmospheric loss of gas to space via the action of solar wind stripping as well as the erosional effect of solar storms.
Based on measurements from MAVEN’s suite of nine state-of-the-art scientific instruments, the solar wind is stripping away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second today, in the form of carbon dioxide and oxygen, said David Brain, MAVEN co-investigator at LASP.
“Most of the stripping [of the Martian atmosphere] by the solar wind at Mars was thought to have taken place very early in the history of the solar system when the sun was much more active and when the solar wind was more intense. So today the rate of loss at Mars is low,” Jakosky said at the briefing.
“Today’s Mars is a cold dry desert-like environment. The atmosphere is thin and it’s not capable of sustaining liquid water at the surface today, it would freeze or evaporate very quickly. However when we look at ancient Mars we see a different type of surface, one that had valleys that looked like they were carved by water and lakes that were standing for long periods of time. We see an environment that was much more able to support liquid water.”
The MAVEN results were published today in nearly four dozen scientific papers in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.
I asked Jakosky; How much gas would have been lost from ancient Mars and what is the rough estimate for the ancient rate of loss to arrive at Mars thin atmosphere today?
“For the amount of gas that we think you would have to have been removed – let me start with the current Mars atmosphere which has a thickness of 6 millibars, that’s just under 1% as thick as the Earth’s atmosphere,” Jakosky replied.
“So we think you would have to remove an amount of gas that is about equivalent to what’s in Earth’s atmosphere today.”
“So the rate would have to have been a factor of about 100 to 1000 times higher, than today’s loss of 100 grams per second in order to have removed the gas early in that time period, which is consistent with what the models have predicted that the loss rate would have been back then in early history.”
What is the solar wind and how does it strip away the atmosphere?
“The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour. The magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars can generate an electric field, much as a turbine on Earth can be used to generate electricity. This electric field accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and shoots them into space,” according to a NASA description.
MAVEN is just now completing its primary mission and starts the extended mission phase on Nov. 16.
The 5,400 pound MAVEN probe carries nine sensors in three instrument suites to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.
MAVEN’s observations will be tied in with NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity surface roving missions as well as MRO and Mars Odyssey to provide the most complete picture of the fourth rock from the sun that humanity has ever had.
MAVEN thundered to space on Nov. 18, 2013 following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.