CS272 – Tech A

How we might go to Mars

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Terraforming Mars

It is difficult to imagine long stays on Mars, with its uninhabitable climate, unbreathable atmosphere composition, and lack of anything living (as far as we know). Instead of requiring residents to keep their space-suits on at all times, perhaps it would be better to convert the planet into a more comfortable place. If it were possible, terraforming Mars would make it a place suitable for life.

Reengineering the Martian atmosphere is not a new idea. It has been proposed in science fiction on numerous occasions. There are some pages on the NASA website, which were apparently last modified 9 years ago which roughly explain the process, however, they explain only one potential way of converting the atmosphere, which is creating chlorofluorocarbons using resources from the air and soil, which act as greenhouse gases to heat up the planet.

Three years ago, IEEE published an article in their Spectrum Magazine. They also make the assumption that inducing global warming is necessary to make the planet livable, which is probably true, as the temperature is very much below freezing, even to the point where a lot of its CO2 is solid.

If we could start the global warming process, some of the dry ice could sublimate, thus increasing the density of the atmosphere and causing a more potent greenhouse effect. Some scientists predict, depending on the method, that the process of raising the temperature of Mars could take five to ten decades.

One of the methods suggested is similar to that of the old NASA web page, creating heavy halocarbons to act as a greenhouse gases. It still remains to be known though if we can generate enough to effect the change of a whole planet’s atmosphere in a significant enough way.

Another idea, proposed back in 1981 by James Oberg is to use huge mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the dry ice-covered poles. It may be possible, but it sounds less likely than the first option. Can we even fabricate mirrors big enough, and if so, how easily could we transport them to Mars?

Another idea, that is even more “out there”, is to use nuclear-powered rockets to direct astroids to crash into Mars. This sounds like science fiction, but who knows?

Once the planet is warmer and the atmosphere has more carbon dioxide, we can potentially start to grow plants there. Another issue is that the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere is very low compared to Earth (2.7% vs. 78%). Some scientists believe the ground there may contain enough nitrates to support future plant life, but it is yet to be known.

If we ever figure out a good method of terraforming, it definitely seems like a good idea. The benefits of having another place for humans to live are immense, and the study of warming the Martian atmosphere may help us find how to slow the warming of our own.

posted by PlanetaryEngineer at 11:07 PM  


  1. “The benefits of having another place for humans to live are immense, and the study of warming the Martian atmosphere may help us find how to slow the warming of our own.”

    Many people argue that humans are the cause to the warming of Earth. Shouldn’t we figure out what is causing our warming BEFORE we try to experiment on another planet? Don’t get me wrong; I agree with human exploration of Mars, but what you are talking about is no longer human exploration – it’s human conquest.

    Anyway, as far as the technology goes, it seems to me like a really expensive experiment. What if we spend the money to send these mirrors or to develop these gases and it doesn’t warm the planet like we thought it would? Or what if even after the planet starts warming, the surface is still (or more) hostile to humans? It seems like it’s more beneficial to go with something that works, and that will work within the next 10 years…

    Comment by OnceThere2010 — November 28, 2010 @ 11:31 PM

  2. OnceThere2010: You do bring up an interesting ethical issue. Is it wrong for us to mess with other planets? To me, it seems that as long as there is no life on Mars (I guess it is still possible there is, but highly unlikely) then there is not much of a problem changing the planet. If we were really worried about somehow causing harm to Mars, we would avoid traveling to it completely.

    Yes, this could be an expensive experiment, but just traveling to Mars is expensive. I don’t necessarily advocate the huge mirror idea, but the beauty of the gas generation one is that you can potentially send these machines to Mars and have them just use the resources available on the planet to produce the halocarbons.

    Comment by PlanetaryEngineer — November 28, 2010 @ 11:44 PM

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