Terraforming of Mars

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Artist's conception of the process of terraforming Mars.

The terraforming of Mars is the hypothetical process by which climate and surface of Mars would be deliberately changed to make large areas of the environment hospitable to humans, thus making human colonization safer and sustainable.

The feasibility of creating a planetary biosphere on Mars is undetermined. There are several proposed methods, some of which present prohibitive economic and natural resource costs, and others that may be currently technologically achievable.[1]

Motivation and ethics[edit]

Future population growth, demand for resources, and an alternate solution to the Doomsday argument may require human colonization of objects other than Earth, such as Mars, the Moon, and nearby planets. Space colonization will facilitate harvesting the Solar System's energy and material resources.[2]

In many respects, Mars is the most Earth-like of all the other planets in the Solar System. It is thought[3] that Mars had a more Earth-like environment early in its history, with a thicker atmosphere and abundant water that was lost over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Given the foundations of similarity and proximity, Mars would make one of the most efficient and effective terraforming targets in the Solar System.

Ethical considerations of terraforming include the potential displacement or destruction of indigenous life, even if microbial, if such life exists.[4][5][6][7]

Challenges and limitations[edit]

The Martian environment presents several terraforming challenges to overcome and the extent of terraforming may be limited by certain key environmental factors.

Low gravity[edit]

The surface gravity on Mars is 38% of that on Earth. It is not known if this is enough to prevent the health problems associated with weightlessness.[8]

Additionally, the low gravity (and thus low escape velocity) of Mars may render it more difficult for it to retain an atmosphere when compared to the more massive Earth and Venus.[9] Earth and Venus are both able to sustain thick atmospheres, even though they experience more of the solar wind that is believed to strip away planetary volatiles. Continuing sources of atmospheric gases on Mars might therefore be required to ensure that an atmosphere sufficiently dense for humans is sustained in the long term.[citation needed]

Countering the effects of space weather[edit]

Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which poses challenges for mitigating solar radiation and retaining atmosphere. It is believed that fields detected on Mars are remnants of a magnetosphere that collapsed early in its history.

The lack of a magnetosphere is thought to be one reason for Mars's thin atmosphere. Solar-wind-induced ejection of Martian atmospheric atoms has been detected by Mars-orbiting probes. Venus, however, clearly demonstrates that the lack of a magnetosphere does not preclude a dense atmosphere.[citation needed]

Earth abounds with water because its ionosphere is permeated with a magnetosphere. The hydrogen ions present in its ionosphere move very fast due to their small mass, but they cannot escape to outer space because their trajectories are deflected by the magnetic field. Venus has a dense atmosphere, but only traces of water vapor (20 ppm) because it has no magnetic field. The Martian atmosphere also loses water to space. Earth's ozone layer provides additional protection. Ultraviolet light is blocked before it can dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Because little water vapor rises above the troposphere and the ozone layer is in the upper stratosphere, little water is dissociated into hydrogen and oxygen.[citation needed]

The Earth's magnetic field is 31 µT. Mars would require a similar magnetic-field intensity to similarly offset the effects of the solar wind at its distance further from the Sun. The technology for inducing a planetary-scale magnetic field does not currently exist. However smaller-scale magnetic “bubbles” have been generated,[10] and scientists’ results show a modest 100–200m diameter could protect spacecraft[11]—and presumably garden areas—from all but high-energy cosmic rays, which could be further mitigated with Kevlar.[12]

The importance of magnetosphere has been brought into question. In the past, Earth has regularly had periods where the magnetosphere changed direction,[13] yet life has continued to survive. A thick atmosphere similar to Earth's could also provide protection against solar radiation in the absence of a magnetosphere.[14]


Hypothetical terraformed Mars

According to modern theorists, Mars exists on the outer edge of the habitable zone, a region of the Solar System where life can exist. Mars is on the border of a region known as the extended habitable zone where concentrated greenhouse gases could support the liquid water on the surface at sufficient atmospheric pressure. Therefore, Mars has the potential to support a hydrosphere and biosphere.[citation needed]

The lack of both a magnetic field and geologic activity on Mars may be a result of its relatively small size, which allowed the interior to cool more quickly than Earth's, though the details of such a process are still not well understood.[citation needed]

It has been suggested that Mars once had an environment relatively similar to that of Earth during an earlier stage in its development.[15] Although water appears to have once been present on the Martian surface, water appears to exist at the poles just below the planetary surface as permafrost. On September 26, 2013, NASA scientists reported the Mars Curiosity rover detected "abundant, easily accessible" water (1.5 to 3 weight percent) in soil samples at the Rocknest region of Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater.[16][17][18][19][20]

The soil and atmosphere of Mars contain many of the main elements crucial to life, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. [21]

Large amounts of water ice exist below the Martian surface, as well as on the surface at the poles, where it is mixed with dry ice, frozen CO2. Significant amounts of water are stored in the south pole of Mars, which, if melted, would correspond to a planetwide ocean 11 meters deep.[22] Frozen carbon dioxide (CO2) at the poles sublimates into the atmosphere during the Martian summers, and small amounts of water residue are left behind, which fast winds sweep off the poles at speeds approaching 400 km/h (250 mph).[citation needed] This seasonal occurrence transports large amounts of dust and water vapor into the atmosphere, forming Earth-like clouds.[23]

Most of the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is present as carbon dioxide (CO2), the main atmospheric component. Molecular oxygen (O2) only exists in trace amounts. Large amounts of elemental oxygen can be also found in metal oxides on the Martian surface, and in the soil, in the form of per-nitrates.[24] An analysis of soil samples taken by the Phoenix lander indicated the presence of perchlorate, which has been used to liberate oxygen in chemical oxygen generators.[25] Electrolysis could be employed to separate water on Mars into oxygen and hydrogen if sufficient liquid water and electricity were available.

Proposed methods and strategies[edit]

Comparison of dry atmosphere
Mars Earth
Pressure 0.6 kPa (0.087 psi) 101.3 kPa (14.69 psi)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) 96.0% 0.04%
Argon (Ar) 2.1% 0.93%
Nitrogen (N2) 1.9% 78.08%
Oxygen (O2) 0.145% 20.94%
Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars centered on the Tharsis region
Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars. This portrayal is approximately centered on the prime meridian and 30° North latitude, and a hypothesized ocean with a sea level at approximately two kilometers below average surface elevation. The ocean submerges what are now Vastitas Borealis, Acidalia Planitia, Chryse Planitia, and Xanthe Terra; the visible landmasses are Tempe Terra at the left, Aonia Terra at the bottom, Terra Meridiani at the lower right, and Arabia Terra at the upper right. Rivers that feed the ocean at the lower right occupy what are now Valles Marineris and Ares Vallis and the large lake at the lower right occupies what is now Aram Chaos.

Terraforming Mars would entail three major interlaced changes: building up the atmosphere, keeping it warm, and keeping the atmosphere from being lost to outer space. The atmosphere of Mars is relatively thin and has a very low surface pressure. Because its atmosphere consists mainly of CO2, a known greenhouse gas, once Mars begins to heat, the CO2 may help to keep thermal energy near the surface. Moreover, as it heats, more CO2 should enter the atmosphere from the frozen reserves on the poles, enhancing the greenhouse effect. This means that the two processes of building the atmosphere and heating it would augment one another, favoring terraforming.[citation needed]

Carbon dioxide sublimation[edit]

There is presently enough carbon dioxide (CO2) as ice in the Martian south pole and absorbed by regolith (soil) on Mars that, if sublimated to gas by a climate warming of only a few degrees, would increase the atmospheric pressure to 30 kilopascals (0.30 atm),[26] comparable to the altitude of the peak of Mount Everest, where the atmospheric pressure is 33.7 kilopascals (0.333 atm). Although this would not be breathable by humans, it is above the Armstrong limit and would eliminate the present need for pressure suits. Phytoplankton can also convert dissolved CO2 into oxygen. This is important because Henry's law states that a high level of atmospheric CO2 will result in a high concentration of dissolved CO2 in any body of liquid water (especially an ocean in the Northern Polar Basin), particularly at Mars's low temperature where gases will dissolve in liquids easily.

Importing ammonia[edit]

Another more intricate method uses ammonia as a powerful greenhouse gas. It is possible that large amounts of it exist in frozen form on minor planets orbiting in the outer Solar System. It may be possible to move these and send them into Mars's atmosphere.[27] Because ammonia (NH3) is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also supply the buffer gas for the atmosphere. Sustained smaller impacts will also contribute to increases in the temperature and mass of the atmosphere.

The need for a buffer gas is a challenge that will face any potential atmosphere builders. On Earth, nitrogen is the primary atmospheric component, making up 78% of the atmosphere. Mars would require a similar buffer-gas component although not necessarily as much. Obtaining sufficient quantities of nitrogen, argon or some other comparatively inert gas is difficult.[citation needed]

Importing hydrocarbons[edit]

Another way to create a martian atmosphere would be to import methane or other hydrocarbons,[28][29] which are common in Titan's atmosphere (and on its surface). The methane could be vented into the atmosphere where it would act to compound the greenhouse effect.[citation needed]

Methane (or other hydrocarbons) could be helpful to increase atmospheric pressure. These gases also can be used to produce water and CO2 for the Martian atmosphere:[citation needed]

CH4 + 4 Fe2O3CO2 + 2 H2O + 8 FeO

This reaction could probably be initiated by heat or by Martian solar UV irradiation. Large amounts of the resulting products (CO2 and water) are necessary for photosynthesis, which would be the next step in terraforming.[citation needed]

Importing hydrogen[edit]

Hydrogen could be imported for atmosphere and hydrosphere engineering.[30] For example, hydrogen could react with iron(III) oxide from the Martian soil, which would give water as a product:[citation needed]

H2 + Fe2O3H2O + 2FeO

Depending on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, importation and reaction of hydrogen would produce heat, water and graphite via the Bosch reaction. Alternatively, reacting hydrogen with the carbon dioxide atmosphere via the Sabatier reaction would yield methane and water.[citation needed]

Use of fluorine compounds[edit]

Because long-term climate stability would be required for sustaining a human population, the use of especially powerful fluorine-bearing greenhouse gases, possibly including sulfur hexafluoride or halocarbons such as chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) and perfluorocarbons (or PFCs), has been suggested.[31] These gases are the most cited candidates for artificial insertion into the Martian atmosphere because they produce a strong effect as a greenhouse gas, thousands of times stronger than CO2. This can conceivably be done relatively cheaply by sending rockets with payloads of compressed CFCs on collision courses with Mars.[24] When the rockets crash onto the surface they release their payloads into the atmosphere. A steady barrage of these "CFC rockets" would need to be sustained for a little over a decade while Mars changes chemically and becomes warmer.

In order to sublimate the south polar CO2 glaciers, Mars would require the introduction of approximately 0.3 microbars of CFCs into Mars's atmosphere. This is equivalent to a mass of approximately 39 million metric tons. This is about three times the amount of CFC manufactured on Earth from 1972 to 1992 (when CFC production was banned by international treaty). Mineralogical surveys of Mars estimate the elemental presence of fluorine in the bulk composition of Mars at 32 ppm by mass vs. 19.4 ppm for the Earth.[31]

A proposal to mine fluorine-containing minerals as a source of CFCs and PFCs is supported by the belief that because these minerals are expected to be at least as common on Mars as on Earth, this process could sustain the production of sufficient quantities of optimal greenhouse compounds (CF3SCF3, CF3OCF2OCF3, CF3SCF2SCF3, CF3OCF2NFCF3, C12F27N) to maintain Mars at 'comfortable' temperatures, as a method of maintaining an Earth-like atmosphere produced previously by some other means.[31]

Use of orbital mirrors[edit]

Mirrors made of thin aluminized PET film could be placed in orbit around Mars to increase the total insolation it receives.[1] This would direct the sunlight onto the surface and could increase Mars's surface temperature directly. The mirror could be positioned as a statite, using its effectiveness as a solar sail to orbit in a stationary position relative to Mars, near the poles, to sublimate the CO2 ice sheet and contribute to the warming greenhouse effect.[citation needed]

Albedo reduction[edit]

Reducing the albedo of the Martian surface would also make more efficient use of incoming sunlight.[32] This could be done by spreading dark dust from Mars's moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are among the blackest bodies in the Solar System; or by introducing dark extremophile microbial life forms such as lichens, algae and bacteria. The ground would then absorb more sunlight, warming the atmosphere.

If algae or other green life were established, it would also contribute a small amount of oxygen to the atmosphere, though not enough to allow humans to breathe. The conversion process to produce oxygen is highly reliant upon water. The CO2 is mostly converted to carbohydrates.[33] On 26 April 2012, scientists reported that lichen survived and showed remarkable results on the adaptation capacity of photosynthetic activity within the simulation time of 34 days under Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).[34][35]

Asteroid impact[edit]

Another way to increase the temperature could be to direct small asteroids onto the Martian surface. This could be achieved through use of spaceborne lasers to alter trajectories or other methods proposed for asteroid impact avoidance. The impact energy would be released as heat. This heat could sublimate CO2 or, if there is liquid water present at this stage of the terraforming process, could vaporize it to steam, which is also a greenhouse gas. Asteroids could also be chosen for their composition, such as ammonia, which would then disperse into the atmosphere on impact, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Lightning may have built up nitrate beds in Mars's soil.[26] Impacting asteroids on these nitrate beds would release additional nitrogen and oxygen into the atmosphere.[citation needed]

Thermodynamics of terraforming[edit]

The overall energy required to sublimate the CO2 from the south polar ice cap is modeled by Zubrin and McKay.[1] Raising temperature of the poles by 4 K would be necessary in order to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. If using orbital mirrors, an estimated 120 MWe-years would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. This is considered the most effective method, though the least practical. If using powerful halocarbon greenhouse gases, an order of 1000 MWe-years would be required to accomplish this heating. Although ineffectual in comparison, it is considered the most practical method. Impacting an asteroid, which is often considered a synergistic effect, would require approximately four 10-billion-tonne ammonia-rich asteroids to trigger the runaway greenhouse effect, totaling an eight degree increase in temperature.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Robert M. Zubrin (Pioneer Astronautics), Christopher P. McKay. NASA Ames Research Center (c. 1993). "Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars". 
  2. ^ Savage, Marshall T. (1994). "The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps". Little, Brown and Company (Amazon.com). ISBN 0316771635. Retrieved September 28, 2013. 
  3. ^ Wall, Mike (April 8, 2013). "Most of Mars' Atmosphere Is Lost in Space". Space.com. Retrieved April 9, 2013. 
  4. ^ Our Destiny in the Stars: The Reality Behind Terraforming
  6. ^ The Ethics of Terraforming - Valencia Ethics Review
  7. ^ Christopher McKay and Robert Zubrin, "Do Indigenous Martian Bacteria have Precedence over Human Exploration?", pp. 177-182, in On to Mars: Colonizing a New World, Apogee Books Space Series, 2002, ISBN 1-896522-90-4
  8. ^ Gravity Hurts (so Good) - NASA 2001
  9. ^ Lundin, Rickard; Stanislav Barabash (2004). "Evolution of the Martian atmosphere and hydrosphere: Solar wind erosion studied by ASPERA-3 on Mars Express". Planetary and Space Science 52 (11): 1059–71. doi:10.1016/j.pss.2004.07.020. Retrieved 3 May 2013. 
  10. ^ "'Deflector Shields' protect the Lunar Surface". 
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  14. ^ http://www.phy6.org/earthmag/magnQ&A1.htm#q6.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ Dr. Tony Phillips (21 November 2008). "Solar Wind Rips Up Martian Atmosphere". NASA. 
  16. ^ Lieberman, Josh (September 26, 2013). "Mars Water Found: Curiosity Rover Uncovers 'Abundant, Easily Accessible' Water In Martian Soil". iSciencetimes. Retrieved September 26, 2013. 
  17. ^ Leshin, L. A. et al (September 27, 2013). "Volatile, Isotope, and Organic Analysis of Martian Fines with the Mars Curiosity Rover". Science (journal) 341 (6153). doi:10.1126/science.1238937. Retrieved September 26, 2013. 
  18. ^ Grotzinger, John (September 26, 2013). "Introduction To Special Issue: Analysis of Surface Materials by the Curiosity Mars Rover". Science (journal) 341 (6153): 1475. doi:10.1126/science.1244258. Retrieved September 27, 2013. 
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  21. ^ Dwayne Brown (12 March 2013). "NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars". 
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  28. ^ Mat Conway (2007-02-27). "Now We're There: Terraforming Mars". Aboutmyplanet.com. Retrieved 2011-08-20. 
  29. ^ "Terraforming - Can we create a habitable planet?". 
  30. ^ "Mars Atmospheric Resources". Johnson Space Center. 28 September 1998. 
  31. ^ a b c Gerstell, M. F.; Francisco, J. S.; Yung, Y. L.; Boxe, C.; Aaltonee, E. T. (2001). "Keeping Mars warm with new super greenhouse gases". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98 (5): 2154–2157. doi:10.1073/pnas.051511598. 
  32. ^ Peter Ahrens. "The Terraformation of Worlds" (PDF). Nexial Quest. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  33. ^ http://www.howplantswork.com/2009/02/16/plants-dont-convert-co2-into-o2/
  34. ^ Baldwin, Emily (26 April 2012). "Lichen survives harsh Mars environment". Skymania. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
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