Hey, you feel like going to Mars today? Climb on top of a dune in Gale Crater’s “Dingo Gap” with Mars Curiosity, via Andrew Bornov’s latest interactive Mars panorama. Adam Mann has more info on what you’re looking at over at Wired.
If you’re on a non-mobile device, I’ve embedded it below. If you ARE on a mobile device, click here, and you’re in for a special augmented reality treat!
Q:I have asked this question in other places, but still have a few unexplained issues. About all this talk of terraforming Mars: I was under the impression that Mars lost whatever atmosphere it may have once had because of the planet's smaller size, meaning not enough gravity to "hold onto" it. The other theory I read about involved Mars' magnetic field. So how would it be possible to recreate livable conditions, now?
Mars actually does have an atmosphere. It’s very very very very tenuous, but there’s something there (Think about it this way, the surface of the Earth has the pressure of ~101 kilopascals (that’s 101,000 pascals), whereas Mars has ~600 pascals. Big difference, but I would still call it an atmosphere. The planet is 1/4 the size of Earth, but it should still have enough gravity to “hold on” to some of the heavier gases (carbon dioxide, methane, etc). If you’re talking about H, or He, then yeah, that might not be enough gravity to hold on it. But that goes the same for Earth. H and He are light in general.
Okay, so I’ve already answered the question way back about the ways which we can terraform Mars. Here’s the answer below, and this is the link to it:
Here’s the issue with terraforming Mars:
- Temperature: Martian nights average to approximately 186K (-87 ˚C), and an average Martian day is approximately 268K (-5˚C), both of which is below the freezing point of water, and thus all water on Mars exists in solid form. It would be difficult to find anything to drink—need energy to melt the ice. Also, there would be no lakes/rivers/oceans to drive the water cycle. No water for plants and animals. Worst of all, no coffee!!
- Atmosphere: Mars has a very tenuous atmosphere. It would be difficult to breathe because of the difference in pressure (again, we are used to approx. 1atm. Mars has about 6 x 10-3 atm). Also, it’s mainly composed of CO2, although too thin to provide a substantial greenhouse effect, it’s still at a high enough percentage for carbon dioxide poisoning for humans.
- Weather: Tidal heating can lead to a dynamic cycle of CO2 sublimation/condensation. This can lead to high wind speeds, which would not be good for structural engineering, or aerospace engineering. Also, prevalent dust storms can lead to issues with…dust getting everywhere…visibility…etc. Dust storms can also change the albedo, though that might not affect human habitability as it would have by directly affecting the surface inhabitants.
- Nitrogen: There’s missing nitrogen in the Martian atmosphere. The nitrogen gas is an important component of the Earth atmosphere. While this might not be a huge deal, the nitrogen cycle itself is crucial to Earth life forms. Plants and bacteria are in an extremely intimate relationship via nitrogen cycling (ammonia to nitrates back to ammonia, etc). This would make it difficult for plant life to exist on Mars. If there’s nitrogen fixing bacteria around, theoretically, it can recycle the nitrates that we *think* is locked up in Martian regolith, and provide nutrients to plant/animals. Nitrogen is a crucial element for life (DNA, protein, etc).
- Radiation: Because of its tenuous atmosphere, and negligible (or non-existent?) magnetic field, Mars does not have a steady protection from the Sun’s radiation. So the surface is constantly bombarded with UV, cosmic rays, crazy electromagnetic waves etc. Humans wouldn’t be able to withstand this high amount of a radiation—we don’t have the biological capacity to reverse such damage (some bacteria might).
- Geology: Mars has a super thick lithosphere, no tectonic plates, and has many inactive (big) volcanoes. This inactive geology would make habitability difficult because there would be no movements of plates, thus no water, thus no ocean (it’s too cold anyway), thus no water cycle. Also because it’s so small, Mars may have already lost most/all of its heat. Regardless of how much energy we can pump into the system to make it warm/habitable, it’s going to become a frozen world one day, completely unable to warm up enough using solely internal heat. But this would take a very very long time, so it might not be a huge issue with temporary terraformation.
Here is how to solve it:
- Temperature & Atmosphere: If we pump up the heat a *little* bit (no, actually, a lot—but a little bit on a thermodynamic scale), we might be able to unlock the subsurface water that is buried underneath Martian regolith as ice. Something like this can be solved by increasing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, to drive up the effective temperature. Pumping CO2 would require possibly jump starting a volcano (how on Earth can that even be done??—not a pun). A more plausible idea is to build power plants all over the planet (as have suggested by Chris McKay from NASA). Or simply by seeding the planet with respiring life that uses inorganic molecules to utilize energy and produce CO2. Early microbial life forms do this (before the evolution of cyanobacteria/photosynthesis). Those microbes were methanogens, sulfur-loving, and can probably also metabolize nitrates.
- Weather: Dust storms can be mitigated by living in closed quarters.
- Radiation: The problem with UV radiation (and lack of magnetic field) can probably be solved by producing artificial magnetic field. This kind of engineering can only applied to small area, not globally. Again, it’s almost impossible to jump start the solid core again, therefore such an issue can only be tackled on a small scale.
- Geology: Mars would have a similar problem as Venus. While there might be enough water on the surface, there’s no convection in the mantle to drive tectonic plates. So while its geology might be change momentarily (lasting maybe about a billion years), it would be difficult to keep it stable as the planet loses more and more heat.
- Ethics!!: If there is no Martian life, yes, we should terraform it (although we could never be sure—ack, science!). If there is Martian life, we must do everything we can to preserve it—not necessarily protect it, but at the very least observe/study it without directly affecting it like we have done so for many other endangered species on Earth.
This is copied verbatim from one of my homeworks from my astronomy class last semester, The Science and Fiction of Planetary Systems
The actual problem with terrafoming Mars is MONEY. Who will pay for what, and which nation should get what piece of land— It’s all politics that I’m not willing to discuss.
But we will get there. I absolutely believe it. We will get there.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about making Total Recall a reality!
It’s back-ordered for weeks. Does that bother me? Nope. BOUGHT IT.
If Only We Had Taller Been
The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene;
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We’d reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky,
If we could reach and touch, we said,
‘Twould teach us, not to, never to be dead.
We ached, and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been,
And touched God’s cuff, His hem,
We would not have to go with them
Who’ve gone before,
Who, short as we, stood tall as they could stand
And hoped by stretching tall to keep their land,
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole.
O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s hand come down the other way
To measure Man and find him Good,
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that.
Short man, Large dream. I send my rockets forth between my ears,
Hoping an inch of Good is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!
- Ray Bradbury
(As several people have asked, this is the poem featured at the end of the latest episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart. It was originally presented by Bradbury in 1971 at a special event honoring the arrival of Mariner 9 to Mars (it was the first spacecraft to orbit a planet besides Earth). In the eyes of your humble author, it is the best thing ever written.
May we all send rockets forth between our ears …
Is there life on Mars? Did there used to be? Did it seed life on Earth? Could we, or should we, put life on Mars, perhaps in the form of human civilization? Why are we so obsessed with our rust-colored neighbor in the first place?
These questions and more are tackled in the newest curiosity expedition from The Advanced Apes. Great stuff.
Oh, I might have a cameo in this one :)
I am a certified Mars Rover pilot, and you can be too.
(Thanks to Mission To Mars 3D, anyway)
Chances are, if I polled 100 people on whether they’d like to command a space mission to Mars, or pilot a six-wheeled rover as if it were the universe’s most advanced remote-controlled vehicle (I mean, it has a nuclear power source, for cryin’ out loud), 99 of them would say HELL YES. I don’t know what the other person would be thinking, honestly.
Well, you can do that now. Thanks to a collaboration between the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and Mozilla’s Ignite competition, you can simulate a future trip to the red planet inside your browser with the Mission to Mars 3D Experiment.
This educational game/tool challenges you to plan and carry out two missions off the bat. First, you devise a rocket launch scheme to send an emergency resupply payload to a science colony on Mars, using a planetary orbit simulator. After you master “the slingshot”, you pilot a Mars Curiosity rover clone, using its onboard instruments to locate a good spot to drop a greenhouse module. I decided to launch my mission using the private SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and had it arrive at Mars on my birthday … in 2038.
I’ll be old, but what a birthday present, eh?
The folks behind the project told me that the 3D platform is completely open source (their GitHub page) and missions can be remixed, but I haven’t played with that part yet. Teachers will enjoy the educational resources attached, because face it, this beats the physics lesson you had planned this week.
Oh yeah … and this is especially appropriate since India just launched a Mars mission today, and it was beautiful (more info on that from Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society):
This Is Mars … Trust Me
When I say “Mars”, what do you think of? You probably said “red planet” right? Or maybe “candy bar”. But what would it look like without the red?
That’s what we find in the book This Is Mars, from Xavier Barral. He compiled pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE imager devoid of color and context, 3.7-mile-wide snapshots of the alien landscape that MRO has been chronicling for seven years. Shaped by brutal forces of extraterrestrial geology, it’s a feast for the eyes and full of more than a few “What the hell am I looking at?" moments.
It’s hauntingly beautiful without its rusty hue, eh? Check out the full book for more.
Bonus: Of course, you don’t have to go to Mars to see a planet transform into an art project. Earth as Art looks pretty grand, too.