The Earth is a lovely place, isn’t it? Because we human beings have evolved as part of this world’s natural systems, we’re pretty well adapted to live here. It helps that the Earth has so much going for it when it comes to supporting life. It’s not too close or too far from the sun, so water is liquid on most of the planet’s surface.
It has free oxygen in the air, an atmosphere and magnetic field that blocks out most radiation. All in all, it’s a pretty great place to be. Sure, nature is harsh and deadly at the best of times, but we humans have managed to make the place quite livable and pretty safe overall.
There Goes the Neighborhood
The problem is that the Earth won’t be able to keep it up forever; no matter what we do it will eventually decline. But in the short term there may be catastrophic climate change or we could be the victim of global nuclear war, a massive solar flare, or a monumental meteorite strike. By staking a claim and colonizing worlds other than Earth, we are putting our eggs in more than one basket. For every new world we can live on, humanity is improving its survival prospects dramatically.
The thing is, any habitable planets that are ready, or at least almost ready, for us to move onto are not anywhere close to being in our reach. Even within our own solar system there is really only one candidate that’s anywhere close to matching Earth. That planet is, of course, Mars, and up until some unspecified time in the past, our two planets had pretty similar histories.
Today Mars is not very friendly to life. Its main problem is that there is barely any atmosphere, so there’s nothing to breathe and nothing to cause a greenhouse effect for making the temperature livable. It’s so close, though, and that’s where the idea of altering Mars itself, a concept known as terraforming, comes into play. By using a number of technologies, some of which don’t yet exist, we could make Mars much more like Earth.
Why Terraform Mars?
If it is even possible at all to terraform Mars, it will be the biggest project ever taken on by the human race. It will take more resources than have ever been spent on anything in history. The gains are, of course, also in line with the cost and effort. In fact, how do you even put a price on a whole extra world to live on?
Whether we actually successfully terraform Mars as a whole or even end up living there, moving to the red planet may not even be the main reason to try. The lessons we learn in the attempt could be applied to more habitable planets that we may one day find out in the galaxy and which may not be so harsh. Don’t forget about Earth itself, either. The technology we develop in an effort to make Mars more livable could just as well be applied to our own planet to make it more livable, which in comparison is a much easier challenge.
The Biggest Problem
The biggest problem with Mars is that pesky lack of an atmosphere. It’s actually ironic, but the global warming greenhouse effect that threatens us here on Earth is something that Mars badly needs. If we can generate a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, it can provide the right starting conditions for life. Ancient Earth also lacked oxygen in its atmosphere, with its air mostly made up of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The photosynthesis of early organisms started the process of creating the breathable air we have today.
So getting this first step going is seen as the important first phase. Provided it turns out to be true, the idea that there is a lot of carbon dioxide locked in the soil of Mars allows us a way to achieve this goal. The bad news is that recent research seems to indicate that whatever CO2 Mars had at one point, it’s been lost to space rather than locked in the planet’s surface.
If that turns out to be the case and there is no CO2 to be freed, we’ll have to find another solution or abandon the idea altogether. In any case, this could mean sending robotic probes to Mars that then construct CO2-belching plants, thickening up the atmosphere over a long period of time. Or perhaps we have to find a way to synthesize it if it’s not there. A final option may be to bring it in from another source, such as comets.
Once you have enough CO2 hugging the surface of Mars, you need some way to start processing the new environment. One idea is to use simple plant life such as algae, fungi, or lichen. There are many of these plant species that are “extremophiles”, meaning they can survive in incredibly harsh conditions. In fact, fungi and lichens survived 18 months on the outer surface of the international space station.
These simple plants could then begin processing the CO2 and releasing oxygen, just as they did on Earth billions of years ago. This could be augmented with nanorobots and, of course, the bacteria that are also extremophiles. Genetic engineering could also be used to make these organisms into “true” Martian creatures, designed to thrive in this early Martian environment.
The Water Worry
For a long time now we’ve been looking for water frozen on Mars. Although there has been some promising evidence that water exists on the planet, the truth is that we just don’t know yet for sure. Much more exploration will be needed to get a really accurate idea of the available water. If it turns out there is no H2O, then we’ll need another, more drastic solution, such as crashing an ice asteroid into the planet.
After a long (LONG) time, the planet may be ready to support more complex animals, which may be when we send engineered animals in to jumpstart the ecosystem on Mars. We may also just end up using future cloning and engineering technology to make those animals on Mars itself, rather than shipping them. However, it’s hard to know what level of technology humanity may have at that point.
Time Will Tell
It will be centuries, if not millennia, of hard work to get Mars into a workable state. That may sound like a lot of time, but on a geological scale it would be breakneck speed. The task would be hard and expensive, and may turn out to be impossible. But if we could make a second Earth in the solar system, the gains are unimaginable.