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Terraforming Mars Problems

  1. Jun 16, 2011 #1
    Hi. So what'ya think? I've always been fascinated by this! The main problems are:

    Air Pressure
    Air composition
    Very weak magnetosphere

    The temperature and air-pressure problems are linked and could be solved by a heating up the planet. Any good ideas?

    But, the main obstacle is Mars' very nasty air composition. Once the problem of heating up the planet has been solved, what to do next? The atmosphere would be made up of practically only carbondioxide. Even if plants and microbes are successfully introduced at some point, and the concentrations of oxygen significantly increased, the air would still be poisonous.

    Also, what effect would the radiation due to Mars' weak magnetosphere actually have on living organisms? http://www.universetoday.com/14979/mars-radiation/ according to this, the radiation isn't so bad. Typically at 0.002 rads per day, and much of it are + charged ions so not as lethal as 0.002 rads of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation.

    Would plants n organisms, assuming the air-pressure of Mars reaches acceptable levels and that there is ample supply of water, nitrogen and other stuff, be able to thrive on Mars?
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2011
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  3. Jun 16, 2011 #2


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    Achieve disarmament by launching all nuclear weapons on earth to detonate on mars. Then wait a few thousand years for radiation to dissipate.
    Only poisonous to higher animals. Let there be vegan world.
    I think so.
  4. Jun 16, 2011 #3


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    The obstacles are gargantuan. Firstly you have to thicken the atmosphere with the appropriate gasses, then you have to somehow account for the lack of magnetosphere, then you have to build some oceans, then you have to design an ecology.

    I bolded the last one because as a biologist I often find that physicists/engineers often overlook just how hard the biology side is going to be. Often on threads of this genre people assume that once we've smashed the comets for the heat and water that we can just drop algae canisters and Bob's your uncle grow an ecosystem.

    The reality is that all habitats on Earth (and by extension the entire biosphere) have evolved to have a finely balanced yet dynamic system which involves the interaction of thousands to millions of different organisms. We haven't even begun to map the various interactions that go on. In reality we won't be able to terraform anything until we have a map of the biosphere that would rival a metabolic flow diagram for complexity. Once this is done then we can start on the next gargantuan task of learning what patterns are necessary and how we are going to genetically engineer organisms to churn Mars soil into something suitable for growing an Earth biosphere on.

    IMHO: by the time we get to the level of science, technology, industry and social will required to terraform we will be far more proficient in just terraforming the inhospitable areas of Earth, constructing new islands/continents, building floating cities and constructing cities underwater. There's plenty more space on Earth without the need of trying to build another.
  5. Jun 16, 2011 #4
    But surely, the heating of the planet would take a very long time. Why not start early? And in the mean time, we could populate the rest of earth, bringing the other species to their knees. lol

    And PAllen brings up a good point, it isn't feasible to completely terraform Mars, is it? But, if Mars gets filled with plants, its atmosphere thickens and the planet heats up then humans could walk around and live comfortably in protective suits

    Btw, concerning the Ocean thingy, I thought that the presence of massive amounts of water-ice was already as good as confirmed by the probes?
  6. Jun 16, 2011 #5


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    As per my post above you can't expect to just dump plants on Mars and have them to cover the planet. Plants require the relevant;
    • soil chemistry
    • soil temperature
    • soil bacteria
    • soil moisture
    • air humidity
    • precipitation
    • air temperature
    • daily temperature variance
    • seasonal temperature variance
    • light intensity
    • relevant light colour
    • daily light intensity variance
    • seasonal light intensity variance
    • atmospheric pressure
    • as well as a host of other organisms to act symbiotically to form a stable ecology.

    We need to have an understanding of ecology, genetics, proteomics, metabolics etc far greater than our understanding of all other life sciences today before we can even begin to assess possible routes to designing an ecosystem that could thrive on Mars.
  7. Jun 16, 2011 #6


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    We don't necessarily have to design it. I'm thinking getting an ecology going in 50,000 years is a big improvement over a billion. So after making mars a bit more hospitable, replicate comparable conditions in a dome on earth, introduce a wide range of extremophiles and raw materials, let evolution work over some thousands of years, then transport the ecosystem to mars. A bit of a gamble, but not preposterous.
  8. Jun 16, 2011 #7
    Well, I thought you knew about the amounts of "dry-ice" on Mars, i.e. frozen carbondioxide. If the temperature would increase a few degrees then this ice would start melting and, since carbondioxide is a drivehouse gas, it would accelerate the heating process.

    So the atmospheric pressure isn't a problem. As for the humidity of the air and soil - there is speculation about the presence of massive amounts of water-ice on Mars. As for the soil chemistry - yeah that one is interesting but why would it necessarily be so poisonous to life or barren? I'm sure that with some nice genetic engineering the colonization of Mars could start.

    While I'm sure you did not mean to suggest that it would be impossible to establish life on Mars, I think you are quite pessimistic given the results of this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(spacecraft)#Results_of_the_mission mission.

    And sorry if I sound ignorant, as I haven't even started on uni yet. Got 1 more year left of high school !
  9. Jun 17, 2011 #8


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    Ignorance is not a problem :) we are all ignorant of something before we learn (maintaining ignorance is a problem but you aren't doing that).

    Clearly I'm not getting my point across. We have no idea what the majority of plants need to survive, we have no idea how to build a stable ecosystem (it is not enough to just dump some vegetation somewhere and expect it to grow). Looking at the link that you yourself provided there are no organisms (with the possible exception of extremophile bacteria) that can survive/thrive in 0.01 atmosphere, temperatures of -20 to -90 etc.

    Genetic engineering involves the cutting and pasting of genes into or out of an organism, it relies on us finding a protein that we wish an organism to express and finding a suitable place in the genome to insert it where it doesn't interfere with the metabolism in a negative way (this is hideously difficult for multicellular organisms and tends to rely on chance more than anything). We are nowhere near the level of complexity needed to design organisms to live on Mars soil, in Mars atmosphere, in Mars light. I'm afraid you can't just say "some nice genetic engineering" will help without providing references or displaying detailed knowledge on the subject. What you are asking isn't genetic engineering as it is in real life, what you are asking for is for us to pretty much create from scratch millions of species to work as an ecology.

    We need to pull off all of the things I've mentioned above which are orders of magnitude more complex than any physical terraforming problem. And once we have got the necessary knowledge to restructure ecologies as we see fit we could just do it on Earth or in space habitats, no need to go to all the trouble of terraforming at all!
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2011
  10. Jun 17, 2011 #9
    Hello Nikitin,

    I think it is important here to look at definitions - terraforming as per the orginal post and establishing life can be interpreted as different things.

    If we are talking about complete terraforming (Mars having a human sustaining environment) I think Ryan has briefly covered some of the biological issues - ecologies are incredibly complex. Ecologies are so complex that biologists spent many years studying them and we can still totally unbalance ecosystems with minor changes (Cane toad introduction into Australia for example)

    To take this further: to completely terraform an ENTIRE planet and not just some habitable dome or structure would require an immense amount of resource (econonmical and social) over a VERY long period of time, would require technologies and understanding of the physical world well above our current models, would also require a very important reason.

    In short while I agree that terraforming is possible, possibility doesnt denote plausibility and there is a good chance that we may never fully terraform Mars.

    Ryan may have a field day with what I am about to write! - It may even be easier to go Intersteller and find a planet with earthlike properties than to completely terraform a barren planet. :)
  11. Jun 17, 2011 #10


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    Lol no I think you hit the nail on the head Cosmo! For us to be able to even figure out the fundamental concepts of how to terraform we need to have a map of the planet's biosphere to rival that of the human genome project. Then we have to figure out how to implement it without inducing catastrophic eco-disaster by not balancing the variables as you said.

    I don't think terraforming is impossible but it's nothing we can do anytime soon. If we really want Mars to be covered in life we could smash comets into it for oceans, heat and atmosphere then dump trillions of canisters of complex molecules into these oceans. Wait several billion years and we may have the first martian organism!

    Though this probably isn't what terrafomers have in mind...
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2011
  12. Jun 17, 2011 #11


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    Well, my humorous recipe is just to speed this up a little. Nuke it to warm it and release some CO2 and water. Wait a bit for just the worst radiation to die down (the rest might accelerate evolution). Then ship large amounts of organic matter and extremophiles from earth, and see what happens. Aim to establish some some sustaining life, not really terraform. I guess I am more optimistic than you that something would take given the range of conditions where extremophiles live.
  13. Jun 17, 2011 #12
    Sorry if there is something I'm getting wrong, I haven't studied biology. Not my thing.


    Ryan, I think you have misunderstood me. There is little point to start throwing plants on Mars at this moment, I was speaking of the future. After the atmosphere thickens and the temperature rises. I think the main problem is how to start the heating process...

    On Mars all the fundamental elements (+water) needed to sustain life, Carbon, nitrogen oxygen, phosphate hydrogen and so on are thought to exist in good supply on Mars. This would mean that strategicly-selected bacteria (those that produce oxygen, perhaps?), perhaps even all kinds of plankton to the oceans, and other simple organisms could easily be introduced, after the planet has been heated. Unless I am getting something wrong? If so don't hesitate to massacre me.

    Once that is in place, I am sure there would be some, possibly engineered in some way, plants that could be introduced. There's always something !

    PS. A few great links:
    http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~mfogg/zubrin.htm (tho the american units are quite annoying for us euros)
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2011
  14. Jun 18, 2011 #13


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    It's not a case of massacring you, I've already outlined all the problems. None of your links has a clear way of building an ecology on Mars, it's not enough just to plonk bacteria on a planet and wait for it to be terraformed. The fact that the elements life need are present doesn't mean they are so in easily accessible compositions or concentrations.

    Assuming you filled the planet with oceans, a thicker atmosphere and a temperature that is acceptable for life you then have to deal with turning the surface into fertile soil. For that you need an ecology not just a few carefully selected bacteria. In addition you will have to deal with the potential toxicity of Mars, I highly doubt that it would be simple to get plants to grow on a surface with so much iron lying around.

    What you are asking for is a colossal undertaking requiring us to have science, technology and industry as far advanced from us now as we are from ancient societies. I'm not saying it's impossible but you don't seem to be grasping the need for an ecology rather than just select species introduced one at a time.

    I'm not knocking you but it's not very helpful when we just speculate "we could find an oxygen making bacteria then use soil making plankton before finally dropping genetically engineered tree seeds!". We might as well be saying "if we could use a soil making machine we could just use tractors to drag it over the planet and plant seeds!" For a productive conversation on terraforming to occur we would have to actually use some real life science, as our knowledge of ecosystems is far less than it needs to be there is very little constructive speculation that can occur at this stage.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2011
  15. Jun 18, 2011 #14
    The soil would, obviously, be made fertile after primitive life have been introduced! I really don't see the exact issue here. Sure, the soil isn't perfect and there are many factors playing in, but that doesn't make anything impossible, or even improbable. What exactly is making it impossible? The fundamental elements are there, with nitrates in supply, acidity not a problem and the soil containing various salts (minerals).

    I'm not saying it is 100% guaranteed that Mars is fully capable of supporting life, I am saying it is far from impossible. We shall see.

    By today's age, accelerating (ammonia) asteroids (if they are present!) or even building up infrastructure on Mars for the production of powerful drive-house gases are by no means pipe-dreams. The theory is here, but the effort, and thus technology, is lacking.

    Besides, heating up the planet & introducing life would only be the short first stage. The long, long, long stage of terraforming will be adjusting the make-up of the atmosphere i.e. making it breathable for humans. The last stage is the hardest one, and the one where future humans will have time on their side.

    You are being overly pessimistic, I think. Starting the first stage of terraforming today is by no means comparable to the Romans launching into space. I think a better comparison would be the people of the 1930's launching themselves into space.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2011
  16. Jun 18, 2011 #15
    Just to add my thoughts, one of the problems I have not yet seen addressed is the magnetic field.

    I think I have a "simple" way of fixing that. Bring a big asteroid into orbit, which should make mars's core move like waves move because of our moon. This should create a magnetic field.

    It is theorized that this actually happened in the past.
  17. Jun 19, 2011 #16
    The sort of timescales needed to terraform a planet are on a cosmological order - the sort of long term civilisation stability, with continued technological, social and resource intensive investment this would require is huge. If you think about how long the current social structures have lasted and compare this to an accelerated terraforming project, were talking about governments a few hundred years old (not even that) taking on projects that I have heard on this topic describes as 50,000 year projects! (Which I think is a VERY optimistic timeframe)

    Ok well I am not sure how much gas you can produce or how much heavy industry could be developed easily on mars (without prefabricated factories being dropped in from offworld - the amount of fuel needed to establish working factories would be immense) - ok granted once some infrastructure was in place more and more could be produced on world.

    Also the "theory is here" is not necessarily true - i will grant you that a very basic idea is there, but I can easily say that for FTL the theory is there - we just need to travel faster than light, but the reality is totally different. I do not think we have the current theory of an acceptable level to recreate an ecology on an exact replica of earth - let alone a distant cousin. The effort is not lacking it is just that we really have no idea on how to start terraforming a barren planet - I mean to be fair we havent even put a man on mars yet :)

    As I mentioned earlier I do not think human civilisation has the longevity required to terraform a planet in such a way - hopefully I am wrong :)

    I think Ryan is being totally realistic, the difficulties facing us in terraforming a planet are IMMENSE. Ryan has only really touched on the ecological ones. There are however many other hurdles in the way, not least of which the resources it would take to completely terraform a planet.

    I think one of the key distinctions I need to stress are the difference between establishing widely dispersed bacterial life and life capable of sustaining humans independently. The former I think we can probably start in the next few hundred years, the latter I feel we would need to wait on evolution following our "seeding" and unfortunately its not that fast! :)
  18. Jun 19, 2011 #17
    Well, why would cultivating plants be so difficult? The early colonizers would survive on plants, not meat. I also fail to see why recreating an ecology exactly as earth's is so crucial.. The first thing that would be needed would simply be suitable plants and bacteria, i.e. plants capable of releasing as much oxygen as possible. Building up an ecology suitable for the terraforming process is really the objective.

    Also I'd imagine ammonia-producing bacteria could come in handy, as ammonia is not only a powerful greenhouse gas, it is also capable of blocking-out harmful UV radiation.

    I strongly disagree that the theory is here for FTL drives. There is absolutely no serious theories about how it would be possible to break or avoid the laws of relativity, and even if there are, these theories depend on some marvel technology that are pipe-dreams, at least currently.

    Why would accelerating ammonia-asteroids be such a pipe-dream? "just" place a few very powerful heat-generators on the correct place at the correct time. This is assuming there are suitable asteroids of this type, though. Or transporting greenhouse gas producing infrastructure to Mars? Time consuming and expensive, but possible.

    These are realistic options. We already know how to transport probes to Mars, and we already are able to land probes on asteroids.

    It would though require a gigantic investment of resources, akin to the apollo mission.

    As for the time-scale: It would take roughly ~ 25 years for the ammonia asteroids to reach Mars. After the collisions massive amounts of ammonia gas will be released, which would easily heat the atmosphere due to it being a strong greenhouse gas. A few decades more and Mars will be turned into a warm planet with oceans and a decent atmosphere. Producing powerful drivehouse gases on Mars would make this process go even faster. Then the issue is increasing the concentration of oxygen in Mars' athmosphere to a suitable level for special plants. That would take more decades using only plants, but not only plants can be used. So basically, turning Mars green may take only a mere century.

    Then comes the long-term objective of engineering the atmosphere composition. This could take as much as a few thousands years, 1000 years to be optimistic, but nowhere close to 50,000 years. And remember, the 1000 year time-scale is with today's thinking..

    I use this http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~mfogg/zubrin.htm very interesting paper as my backing.

    Hmm could you perhaps explain closer? Mars' core isn't molten, this is the main problem.

    I don't think giving Mars a proper magnetic field is realistically possible, at least not in this age. maybe in a thousand years...
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2011
  19. Jun 19, 2011 #18
    Cultivating plants that have spent millions of years evolving on Earth to live in a completely alien environment would be difficult, I believe the explanation of difficulty is in itself. Recreating an earthlike ecology would be crucial if you wanted humans to survive in the environment, again we have evolved into our current world.

    You are conveniently grouping together bacteria and plant life and while I agree establishing microbial life is well within our capability plantlife is multi-cellular and far more complex - its requirements follow suit accordingly.

    Yes they are pipe dreams, that was my point. The underlying theory is there - the Alcubierre drive is a theoretical propulsion system, but I believe as a scientific notion currently this has as much worth as terraforming mars.

    I would say time consuming and expensive is an understatement... can you perhaps calculate how much of the worlds GDP would be required to move enough infrastructure to oxygenate a planet?

    I am quite interested in these timescales:

    25 years for the ammonia asteroids to reach mars - is this once we have redirected the asteroid to reach Mars, or 25 years to come up with mission design, build the capable craft, test to standards etc etc. fly to the asteroid and then move it?

    Also in the article you linked:

    "Now we don't know for sure if there are numerous asteroid size objects in the outer solar system, but there is no reason to believe that there aren't. As of this writing, only one is known, but that one, Chiron, orbiting between Saturn and Uranus is rather large (180 km diameter,), and it may be expected that a lot of small objects can be found for every big one. In all probability, the outer solar system contains thousands of asteroids that we have yet to discover because they shine so dimly compared to those in the Main Belt"

    So does this 25 years also account for finding these asteroids?

    On a broader note the article linked is a technological requirement theory which I took the liberty of reading in full - I am pretty sure these have been produced on a number of projects. The Orion project, Dyson Spheres etc. It doesnt make the challenges any less valid, and it also fails to take into account anything other than a mathematical model.

    While I do not say that terrafroming Mars is impossible I think with current technology and understanding its is WELL beyond what we are capable of and given that a project of this sort is longitudinal - lets say for arguments sake I agreed to a 1000 years, then I still think it very unlikely any government could invest and remain stable for so long.

    To me there are as many non technological limiting factors as technological ones.
  20. Jun 19, 2011 #19
    1. What do you mean by an "earthlike" ecology, exactly? Why would you want one? And what exactly is in the way for letting plant-life thrive on Mars, assuming the results of the pheonix mission are typical for Mars? Anyway, I am sure that biologists could easily figure out a proper biological model. As said, Mars does have all the needed nutrients.

    2. Well, the current technology needed to start the terraforming of Mars are by no means pipe-dreams. Oxygenating a planet.. This is the last step of the terraforming, and true the most expensive one. But why worry about this now? Making Mars green is the first priority.

    3. 25 years for the asteroid to hit Mars. That's what I meant. From the point that the Asteroids start hitting Mars, most of the job is done.

    While it would take much time to produce the technology needed and find the proper asteroids, this wouldn't take thousands of years, so to speak.

    Anyway, there are more alternatives than just asteroids to heating up the planet. None of them impossible or "pipe-dreams". Quite expensive and extremely time consuming, yes. But quite possible and realistic, given the funding and effort.
  21. Jun 19, 2011 #20
    If we are terraforming a planet then why would you not want an earth-like planet? Unless there is plan to allow for the natural evolution of a martian ecosystem then I assume we would be wanting to reproduce an earth like ecology so earth plants/animals could eventually be native to Mars. Also if the plan is for martian environment to support life then "earthlike" would probably be the best.

    Ryan is a biologist so I woukd be interested to hear how biologists could "figure out a proper biologigical model" - this sounds extremely naive to me. We barely understand earth ecosystems in their complexity - to then apply this to a foreign environment... Like is said I wuld be very interested to hear a biologist opinion on this.

    With current economic depression - and future forecasts, I would argue most governments have to justify "why worry about that now?" As what would be the point in undertaking a massively longitdinal project without definitive success.

    These two statements seem to contradict each other - the technology would need to be designed, produced and tested, then a comet located and redirected - I highly doubt 25 years is realistic. Also with regards to Ammonia Asteroids:

    "While attractive in a number of respects, the feasibility of the asteroidal impact concept is uncertain because of the lack of data on outer solar system ammonia objects. Moreover, if Td is greater than 20 K, a sustained greenhousing effort will be required. as the characteristic lifetime of an ammonia molecule on Mars is likely to be less than a century, this means that even after the temperature is raised, ammonia objects would need to continue to be imported to Mars, albeit at a reduced rate. As each object will hit Mars with an energy yield equal to about 70,000 1 megaton hydrogen bombs, the continuation of such a program may be incompatible with the objective of making Mars suitable for human settlement."

    Nikitin I do agree with you and I think in the next thousand years then these sorts of projects become more and more technically feasible. Note I bolded technical as these are not the only limiting factors. Increasingly cost may be the main concern for a long term project of this nature - it may be that commercial reasons push terraformation projects.
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