New light (2): Terraforming Basics, First Installment by George Drake

Okay, here’s the first installment on terraforming Mars. “Terraforming” means transforming a planet into an ecologically altered, totally new, planet, which, in this newly invigorated state, resembles the planet Earth. To fit most people’s working definition, this implies transforming it into a similarity so near that humans can survive on its surface.

At present, terraforming clearly involves technologies far beyond current practice. Changing the planet at all would appear more science fiction than science, if it weren’t for the fact that that task–of  terraforming Mars in particular–is currently an active field of scientific research. Nonetheless, let’s admit right up front that this is a highly speculative arena.

We start with the basics. There are many problems with terraforming Mars.   A short list would include: ambient temperature; lack of a magnetosphere; dearth of water; lack of atmospheric bulk; chemical composition of the atmosphere; and absence of life.

There are, in fact, so many problems with terraforming Mars that one might, initially, suspect that Mars is not the best place to go. In this regard Mars has two strong pluses that no other destination has: it is nearby, relatively speaking, and it is already rather earth-like.

That I may have left some important problems out seems obvious, but you can easily see, as if it weren’t already apparent, that I am proposing a non-trivial task. In fact, when you think on it, it’s not so surprising that I anticipate 300 to 900 years as the timeframe in which to resolve the difficulties.

But, in all honesty, I am not suggesting that timeframe. Those numbers arose when I looked at the work of planetary engineers. For those who don’t know, planetary engineers are those planetary scientists whose speciality is the theoretical practice of altering the environment of a planet in an attempt to bring about desired results–usually terraformation, but, increasingly, on earth itself to counteract the effects of global warming.

Each of the problems associated with  terraforming Mars represent an entire range of extremely difficult challenges. I do not pretend to be in a position to propose potential solutions. Hopefully, a qualified reader or two will add their comments if, and when, they become aware of this blog.  In the meantime, comments/suggestions from novices, such as myself, will be welcomed and encouraged. Hopefully, the timeframe required to get the  conversation going will be shorter than that required to terraform Mars.

Ambient temperature is one of the easiest problems to address, if not to overcome. The present temperature on Mars, even on a warm day, is colder than the coldest days on Earth in any of the lower latitudes. Nonetheless, there have been numerous suggestions for practical means of raising the ambient temperature on the surface of Mars. These run the gamut from solar reflectors in outer space, near the planet, to  placing nuclear units on the surface to generate heat, to utilization of various techniques to generate local energy as a stopgap measure while the overall task of ambient temperature rise is accomplished. There are numerous science fiction books which address this issue, including the rather well-known trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, which has a central technology of huge bored holes in the surface whose function is to tap the heat from the depths.

One technology that particularly appeals to me involves utilizing the Legrange point that lies between Mars and the sun to stabilize a space reflector/sunlight concentrator for the purpose of increasing sunlight. The Legrange points are locations in space associated with any two body system in which a third body will remain, essentially, motionless. The scientific community’s awareness of these points is largely a recent phenomenon. They are the obvious places in space to position these kinds of reflectors/concentrators.


Re-composing the atmosphere in such a way that greenhouse gases dominate is another common suggestion, although  what greenhouse gases is unclear to me, since Mars’ atmosphere is already predominately Carbon Dioxide.

Combinations of techniques will almost certainly be required.

One  important aspect of terraforming Mars, which has particularly important ramifications, is that many, if not most, terraforming techniques applied to Mars will have analogs which may also be applied to the planet Earth in response to the climate change effects of global warming.   For instance, utilizing the Legrange  points to concentrate the Sun’s energy also has potential application for deflecting the Sun’s energy here on earth. Similarly, of course, techniques which affect climate on planet Earth will have analogs for affecting climate on Mars. So, for example, altering the composition of the atmosphere on Mars to concentrate greenhouse effects has implications which have only become obvious as we have observed the effects of greenhouse gases on Earth.

Finally, the ability to conduct planet-wide experiments on an alien surface, such as Mars, has apparent advantages to doing so on our own home.
Next time I’ll attempt to continue the discussion with the other problems.

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3 Responses to New light (2): Terraforming Basics, First Installment by George Drake

  1. Barbara says:

    Interesting info.

    I think the last paragraph may be your most persuasive argument yet for those who object to “raiding” Mars.

  2. Hank Raymond says:

    Well… That lack of a magnetosphere is a big problem. I’m under the impression that without one, radiation on the surface would be lethal and any attempt to increase the atmospheric pressure would fail because the sun’s radiation would just strip the atmosphere off into space. Is my thinking incorrect?

  3. Hank Raymond says:

    Hey, I wrote my last comment above on February 25, but it says February 16. However the time is correct.

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