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Terraforming Mars obstacles

  1. Jun 2, 2008 #1
    So now that the Phoenix Land has all but confirmed to us that there's plenty of water on Mars, this will then spark increased interest in colonizing it.

    So the main obstacles to Mars being habitable are:
    1) Low atmospheric pressure
    2) Low temperature
    3) poisonous atmosphere
    4) absence/scarcity of liquid water
    5) absence of magnetosphere due to non-molten core

    Other than those things, Mars doesn't seem like such a bad place.

    So here are some proposed solutions:

    Evaporate the icecaps, to liberate CO2 and H2O, which would raise the atmospheric pressure and temperature. Then we could seed the place with photosynthetic bacteria and vegetation that could transform the CO2 into a breathable oxygen atmosphere.

    To evaporate the icecaps, we could perhaps use a well-placed nuclear explosion to propel some large chunk of rock or ice towards Mars, and drop it on the icecap(s). A suitably large mass could impact with enough kinetic energy to evaporate enough frozen material to warm the planet and build up its atmosphere to suitable pressure levels.

    The question is, what kind of impact would be optimal for our purposes?
    What kind of impact would enable us to obtain returns on our efforts the quickest?
    How much would we want to raise the atmospheric pressure?

    I presume we would like to make surface conditions as close to Earth-like as possible (STP, and abundant water supply), and in the quickest timeframe possible.

    What would happen if we attempted to use a nuke to knock one or both of the moons, Phobos and Deimos, out of orbit to collide with the Martian icecaps? Could this be done?
    Would it contaminate the orbital space with debris and create a severe hazard to spacecraft?

    Would we be better off using nukes on some chunk(s) of ice from the asteroid belt or from Jupiter's rings, or Saturn's rings, to send this(these) towards Mars?

    Or would we be better off using nukes directly on the icecaps to melt them?

    Or should we use microwave lasers to zap and heat the ice chunks to propel them towards Mars?
    Or should we use microwave lasers to zap the Moons and drop them on Mars?
    Or should we use microwave lasers to directly heat the icecaps from orbit?

    Can we engineer extremely hardy and extremely active extremophile bacteria capable of converting a CO2 atmosphere into oxygen in an accelerated amount of time?

    Could we place a large solar-powered satellite close to the sun, that could generate a magnetic field to deflect a significant portion of the solar wind much before it reached Mars, rather than trying to stop the solar wind near Mars itself?

    Etc, etc.

    What would be the best approach to take, to make the planet's surface most Earth-like, in the shortest amount of time?
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2008 #2
    Giant polymer bubbles to live and create colonies within, plants, and cold fusion will probably be the best bets for terraforming anything like mars in the foreseeable future.
  4. Jun 2, 2008 #3
    One problem concerning the introduction of plants is the deficiency of nitrogen. IMO, also as Cvan stated, the best bet would be to construct small dispersed habitable colonies. That way, the resources that are available could be contained and controlled. Inducing a sudden worldwide even such as melting the caps by nuclear or impact means, is taking a big risk. With system as dynamic as Mars (more so for Earth), producing large-scale planet-wide effects would involve a high level of risk or chance... rolling dice. Making accurate predictions for an event such as that is impossible, IMO.

    Our best bet is containment; biting off what we can chew.
  5. Jun 2, 2008 #4


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    It has?
  6. Jun 2, 2008 #5
    "LandER," excuse me -- sorry about that.

    Well, we've got snapshots of what looks like ice -- what are the odds on that?
    Plus the orbiters have been giving strong water signals for some time now.

    So what could be catastrophic about melting lots of CO2 and H2O at once? Will it kill the planet? Looks pretty dead already to me.

    It seems like it will take quite some time, effort and resources to develop an economic and efficient spacefaring capability. But it wouldn't take a whole lot of extra engineering to drop multiple large H-bombs on Mars. Just send some MIRVs. Actually, make them the burrowing bunker-buster warheads.

    Start a greenhouse-gas chain reaction.

    It seems to me that the more that is released at once, the more likely there will be a runaway effect that cannot be easily/quickly undone by refreezing or other atmospheric loss.

    This would give us time to seed photosynthetic bacteria and have them spread, to start converting the CO2.

    Hopefully large swathes of liquid ocean would represent a less reflective surface than the ice, thus capturing even more solar energy for further warming.

    What if instead of nuking the icecaps directly, we nuked or otherwise dropped a large ammonia chunk onto Mars?
    That would elevate the nitrogen, while the impact energy could warm the planet and revive some tectonic/volcanic activity.

    But the key is not to overdo it. That's why I'm wondering what the optimal chunk size is for just the right impact, that wouldn't go too far. Maybe we could do multiple impacts from multiple ammonia chunks.

    Surely we could find some suitably large ammonia chunks in the asteroid belt nearby, or in Saturn's or Jupiter's rings. Nuke them at just the right angle and timing, so that they'll fly into Mars' orbital path. Maybe if the impacts could warm the planet enough, we wouldn't have to hit the icecaps.

    We can construct our dispersed controlled compartmentalized gentle colonies once we've gotten the heavy duty planetary bombardment over and done with.

    Then those colonies will have more to work with -- more atmosphere, more ocean, etc -- things which they wouldn't otherwise have off the bat. That way, they could focus more on planting plants and disbursing bacteria, to process that atmospheric and oceanic bulk material into something more human-friendly.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2008
  7. Jun 3, 2008 #6
    With the data available thus far, it's most likely solid ice CO2. As I stated in a post in the Astronomy section, approximately 25% of the detected CO2 is annually distributed into the atmosphere which then later condenses back into solid CO2 at the polar caps. There may be considerable amounts of water present, but so far nothing has been verified.

    Again, the primary problem is a lack of sufficient amounts of nitrogen in the soil... which oxygen producing plants require.
  8. Jun 3, 2008 #7
    Well, that's why I mentioned flinging some large chunks of ammonia (nitrogen source) down onto the planet. Again, with some sufficiently large chunks, their impact energy could also help to warm the planet, thus killing 2 birds with one stone.

    So I'm just wondering what the right size of chunk(s) would be, to effectively do that.

    I figure that it's best to get the heavy duty disruptive bombardment out of the way first, so that you get the major transformative upheaval events done with, and then while that's all settling down at least you'll have some bulk material (atmosphere + ocean) you can go to work on, using bacteria/extremophiles/lichens/etc. Things might not exactly be at STP conditions early on, but perhaps at least suitably engineered extremophiles could survive in it and go to work, while things settle down.

    Isn't there a possibility of nitrates and other nitrogen compounds in the soil, etc? Perhaps suitable bacteria can extract these as well, along with impact heating.

    I'm thinking that as long as we can get some reasonable atmospheric pressure and an ocean going, then we can seed it with extremophiles to start multiplying and reprocessing stuff in bulk.
  9. Jun 3, 2008 #8


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    How long would that take? And would we be patient enough to render Mars completely unhabitable (ammonia atmo, meteor impacts etc.) in the short-term, for that long-term gain?
  10. Jun 3, 2008 #9
    When does all this happens?
  11. Jun 3, 2008 #10
    Well, we wouldn't make the whole atmosphere ammonia, because there would be a lot of CO2 and H2O liberated as well. Dropping some large ammonia chunks onto the planet would mainly mean providing a nitrogen source for nitrifying bacteria to break down.

    And we'd only have to do that if we couldn't find enough nitrogen locally. Perhaps there are already sufficient quantities of nitrates in the soil for this to be done without ammonia-bombing the planet. Right now, nitrogen only makes up 2.7% of the atmosphere.

    Anyway, since NH3 is lighter than CO2, the stuff would probably rise and stay in the upper part of the atmosphere, getting broken down by the solar wind and radiation.

    Furthermore, Ammonia and CO2 can react to form Urea, which is a common fertilizer.

    Is that so terrible?
  12. Jun 3, 2008 #11
    Strange how life can survive in terrible extremes:


    How do we know a bacteria like this couldn't survive the Martian climate, especially if we engineered it further to boost its abilities?
  13. Jun 3, 2008 #12
    No one said it's terrible. It's chaotic. Until we learn more about the planet, any ideas are purely speculation. When presenting an idea for even a theoretical experiment, you have to have at least a decent amount of valid information to even begin to make assumptions about the experiments effects. We could almost make up any outcome we would like at this point. Now, i'm not trying to give you a hard time or being conflicting just for the fun of it as i've had quite a few (a lot actually) ideas like this. It's just that I keep coming back to the same conclusion... that we don't understand enough about the planets makeup and cycles yet.

    They're called extremophiles.

    We're not sure that it doesn't currently exist on Mars. That question is and always has been open to speculation. We've actually found bacteria two miles below land before. And just recently, we've found organisms living a half mile beneath the ocean floor...

  14. Jun 3, 2008 #13

    D H

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    Where exactly will this ammonia (or anything else you want to fling at Mars) come from? We presently do not have *any* ability to gather resources in space. Everything we send to Mars now comes from Earth, and our abilities are limited to sending a 350 kilogram mass to every few years. A 350 kg mass, or hundreds of 350 kilogram masses, regardless of makeup, will not make a dent in Mars' climate. By the time we have the ability to do make a dent in Mars' climate, why Mars? Why not make very large space habitats instead?
  15. Jun 3, 2008 #14
    I feel that we don't have to go whole-hog and start lobbing city-sized chunks of rock at Mars. But we should perform experiments to lob house-sized chunks of ice at Mars, in order to develop the experience in orbital mechanics and astrophysics necessary to do these things if and when the time comes.

    So while continuing to investigate Mars is doubtlessly worthwhile, investigating other things like ice-lobbing could be worthwhile too.

    As far as the possibility of any life existing on Mars, I dont' feel that should force us to refrain from experiments in introducing and testing our own engineered terrestrial bacteria on the Martian surface. If our bacteria contaminate the planet, I don't feel that would be a bad thing, and actually it would be pleasant surprise in the sense that it would establish our foothold in terraforming Mars. If our bacteria were to supplant or extinguish any native organisms then it would only prove that ours are hardier, and thus better for the terraforming purpose.

    So I don't see why we should have to wait to rule out the existence of life before conducting any experiments in testing bacteria on the planet.
    Hell, if we had to first wait to disprove the existence of life there, we could end up waiting forever, because there'll always be some fanatic who'll complain that you haven't looked under this or that rock yet.

    Mars being a planet, means that there are sufficient similarities to our own Earth to extrapolate a general understanding of the planet -- eg. if we can melt the icecaps, they'll release gas, etc, etc.

    So I'm not saying we should just abandon all caution and proceed with reckless abandon, but at the same time we shouldn't be overly-fearful shrinking violets, when we might be able to conduct some bold path-breaking initiatives towards this closest home-away-from-home for mankind.
  16. Jun 3, 2008 #15
    Ammonia ice chunks seem to have been detected in Saturn's rings. There are also many large ice bodies in Oort cloud at the outer edge of the Solar System. We may find some more frozen gas bodies in the asteroid belt beyond Mars. We should look at ways to trying moving some of these ice chunks towards Mars. Perhaps a space probe or group of space probes could use pulsed laser-heating or electron-beam heating to vaporize portions of ice into gas jets that could propel the chunks towards Mars.

    Perhaps there may be other options, such as directly pushing against the chunks with thrust-producing engines, or harpooning the chunks and towing them. Perhaps explosives could be used. The chunks themselves should be able to provide propellant mass.

    There may be a number of options worth investigating.

    Btw, wouldn't building orbital habitats of any appreciable size also involve being able to gather resources from space? This would also further involve processing them in space into building materials, and then conducting assembly, all on a very large scale.

    Lobbing chunks at a planet's gravity well, and allowing the planet to "process" these materials might be seen as a far simpler task.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2008
  17. Jun 3, 2008 #16
    Or we could just skip beating around the bush and invent a "Genesis Device".

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  18. Jun 3, 2008 #17

    D H

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    You can say all the "we shoulds" and "perhaps" you want. That does not change that what you said is science fiction, and soft science fiction at that. Where does the energy come from? Do you realize how much energy it takes to transfer even a smallish chunk of ice from Saturn's orbit to Mars, let along something big enough to make even the smallest dent in Mars' climate? Even if that energy comes from sun, it takes a lot of equipment to harness that energy, particularly so at 10 AU from the sun.

    Not on nearly as large a scale as is needed to terraform a planet.

    Why do you want to take on the astronomically immense task of terraforming a planet rather than take on the merely immense task of transforming asteroids into habitats? Our ability to terraform Mars is hundreds of years into the future. Building space habitats is science fiction also, but not nearly so much as is colonizing Mars.
  19. Jun 4, 2008 #18
    I think leveraging all that barely frozen CO2 at the Martian polar ice caps is the key. It can be released to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. If you release enough, then it will increase the temperature which will result in even more thawing, and more gas release. I think we could even nuke those icecaps if necessary.

    If we were to use a nuclear explosion, or even a nuclear-powered laser to shift Phobos (26km diam.) out of orbit and drop it onto an icecap, then it would melt all that CO2 and H2O. I don't feel it would necessarily cover the planet in dust, since it would be the ice absorbing the brunt of the impact. Besides, at only .01 atm, there's not immediately enough atmosphere to allow a lot of heavy dust to float around. It would take some time for the liberated gas to diffuse around the planet.

    Phobos is already in a decaying orbit anyway, due to hit Mars in millions of years. We'd simply be accelerating the process.

    But I think that ammonia chunks should be looked at, in case there's not enough planetary nitrogen. If there are nitrates in the ground, as there are in Earth deserts, then perhaps the desert covering the entire Martian surface may have them. If there are enough nitrates, then we can use nitrifying bacteria to liberate them. I think we need to first make a determination of where the nitrogen is on Mars, and how much is available.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2008
  20. Jun 4, 2008 #19
    Regarding the energy/effort required to transform an entire planet, I think that if we get some heavy lifting / upheaval out of the way first, then settlers could then settle on the planet while it's settling down, to live in domes. Human economic activity can exert a powerful effect.
    Self-replicating bacteria and other CO2-loving organisms can exert a powerful effect.



    Unless you plan to keep your orbital habitats in Saturn's gravity well, then you'll need to find a way to shift lots of nitrogen out of Saturn's orbit. I don't see why doing that is more difficult than shifting it to Mars. And if you tell me that your habitats will be much smaller, then I'd say you're condemning yourself to living in a bottle. Every time there's a solar flare, you'll be rushing for the imaginary protection of your "safety closet". That's no way to live.
  21. Jun 4, 2008 #20

    Have you ever seen the movie the red planet (2000) if not you will probably like it, thats exactly what they do, cool idea.
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