Mars: the New Earth?

In a previous post, I outlined a proposed mission profile for, and some of the realities involved in, a one-way manned mission to Mars: rovers and robots would establish a base camp before the crew arrived. The astronauts would receive continuous shipments of supplies form Earth, but would have to rely on onsite greenhouses for the majority of their food and oxygen. Like I said, the proposal is a radical one; the astronauts would have no means to return home at any point throughout the mission. But they would be the first step in a long-term plan to develop a human outpost on the red planet.

The proposed mission itself is, I think, difficult to justify. More difficult, however, are the realities of living on an inhospitable planet for the rest of your life. In the case of Mars, would it be easier to alter the planet to make it fit for human habitation instead of bringing a habitat in tow? What should come first, terraforming or inhabiting? (Previous image: Terra Nova by David A. Hardy depicts a terraformed Mars rise as seen from one of its moons.)

Above any other, our humanity is the strongest factor our expansion throughout the solar system; our natural inclination to move and discover new lands, to know more about who we are and where we come from, as well as the instinct to preserve the species. While the human will to know more about ourselves is understandable as a natural curiosity, the latter ‘preservation of the species’ as a rational for human migration to Mars seems too flawed to be the prime driving factor. Who are we to decide we are worth preserving?

Proponents for the colonization of Mars, as well as many champions for one-way proposals, point out additional factors that are equally driving if less universal in their appeal. Rationales include a challenge for humanity, a wealth of knowledge to be gained about a new planet, the economic gains (the planet is all land, a very valuable commodity), its central location in the solar system, as well as its similarity to Earth (it’s day is slightly longer and gravity slightly weaker, but nothing we couldn’t adjust to). (Right is artist Paul DiMare’s concept of a human mission to Mars.)

The long-term establishment of a human outpost on Mars would serve multiple purposes. Initially used a jumping off point for further missions into the solar system, the establishment could eventually serve as a refuge for humans. (The same has been proposed on the Moon – it is a much closer target, but lacks the environment necessary to provide the crew with a means to live off the land while the base is built.)

But if Mars were to become a true refuge for humanity or even a habitable resupply and launch point for future mission, small habitable quarters wouldn’t be enough. The planet would need to become as close an analogue to Earth as possible. It would need a life-supporting atmosphere and a shield from solar activity.

A new, man-friendly Mars could be achieved through terraforming: the redevelopment of a planet to make it more Earth-like. One of the more succinct and well-presented terraforming proposals I found comes from the Canadian Terraformers Society. (In true Canadian diplomatic style, the proposal foresees the participation of a host of countries including Ukraine, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US.) They propose a simple 12-step plan to turn not only Mars, but Venus and our Moon as well, into proper human habitats.

Artist's concept of the stages of terraforming Mars.

Their plan is as follows. First, develop a heavy lifting launch vehicle to lift large loads into Earth orbit. The vehicle’s main charge will be to put (either whole or in sections) a self-sustaining ship in orbit to serve as a starting point – this is step 2. From there, step three is to build an interplanetary vehicle for the exploration of inner planets as well as aiding in building future bases on these planets. Step four uses this interplanetary vehicle to explore the inner solar system (Moon, Mars and Venus).

At this point the process gets trickier. Step five is to siphon off CO2 (carbon dioxide) and N2 (nitrogen) from Venus’ upper atmosphere and store it for transport. Step six delivers the stored CO2 and N2 to Mars and Moon via particle beams. Step seven brings water into the equation, which is mined from asteroids in the asteroid belt. Step eight delivers the mined water to Mars, the Moon, and Venus.

Step nine begins the process in earnest with the exportation of bio-material from Earth. Step ten uses this bio-material to fertilize Mars, the Moon, and Venus. Step eleven is the transplantation of biomes from earth. The process ends with step twelve, the colonization of new worlds. Simple!

In the case of Mars, much of the rationale behind the terraforming proposals come from the belief that the planet once had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on the surface; that it was, in short, similar to Earth. It is considered feasible, then, to return it to its former state. It just needs to be warmed up by the addition of gases!

Artist's concept of what a flattened out map of a terraformed mars might look like.

Infusing Mars’ current scant atmosphere with ammonia could make it considerably thicker. Adding hydrogen would also be beneficial; it would react with the carbon dioxide in the current atmosphere to yield water and methane, the latter of which could aid the greenhouse effect of the planet.

Giving the planet a thicker atmosphere would trap more heat from the sun, but additional warming measure might be necessary to speed up the process. To this end, ultra-thin mirrors placed in Martian orbit would increase the insulation around the planet. This would vaporize carbon dioxide and water, adding support to the greenhouse effect with the addition of greenhouse gasses.

Another way to heat the planet is with microwaves. As the Canadian Terraformers write, it is possible to “place a microwave array, powered by solar cells, nuclear reactor, or a combination of the two, into geosynchronous orbit,” providing the planet with a more active heating element.

A third proposal for heating Mars would be to crash its inner moon, Phobos, into the surface. While this would only generate a moderate amount of heat, it would serve the all-important function of removing Phobos as a hazard for a terraformed Mars. As the planet’s atmosphere thickens, the orbital period of Phobos will slow. It will smash into the terraformed Mars anyways, so we might as well remove the danger before it kills anyone.

These steps towards heating and atmospheric development would spur the development of an Earth-like planet, at least for a little while. It’s possible that Mars’ lack of magnetic field (something that no group proposes creating through artificial means) and consequent bombardment by undiluted solar rays would gradually destroy the atmosphere, returning it to its former state – the state it’s in now. But it’s also possible that by the time Mars is ready for human occupancy that the sun will have grown too hot for Earth. In that case, Mars will be ready and waiting for an influx of human settlers. (Pictured is an artist’s concept of astronauts exploring one of Mars’ canyons, before terraforming or human colonization.)

While the lack of magnetic field will pose problems for the Martian atmosphere in the long term, some of the short-term dangers of an unprotected planet will be mitigated with the addition of a thicker atmosphere. The atmosphere will act as a buffer from solar radiation and violent solar activity, similar to how Venus’ surface is protected by its thick atmosphere.

The prospect of terraforming Mars and creating a sort of ‘second Earth’ is both romantic and fascinating. But there’s also a negative aspect that I find inescapable. What if there is some life on Mars, a primitive life that we just haven’t found yet, and we introduce an ‘artificial’ atmosphere, effectively killing the true Martians. What will be the criteria by which we declare, once and for all, that Mars is truly devoid of life? And what if Mars turns out like the deep oceans: seemingly barren, but eventually revealing a whole world to be discovered?

Also tied into terraforming proposals is the notion that our reshaping the solar system to suit our needs is a selfish act. Isn’t turning Mars (as well as Venus and the Moon for that matter) into Earth-like planets impressing ourselves too much in the natural universe? Are we not, by reshaping the solar system to fit our needs, just playing God? I can’t seem to separate these ideas of reshaping to cosmos to aid in our migration from the apparent need to return man to his previous central position in the cosmos.

From the ancient Greeks forward, men have been trying to secure for themselves a central position in the universe:  But as science progressed, this was increasingly a lost cause. Humans are not central to the universe – Earth, our solar system, even our galaxy holds no special position in the greater universe. Our time frame on Earth isn’t remarkable. We were not created for a special purpose or by some divine creator. We are, as Darwin pointed out, simply arrogant enough to think we are. (Above is an artist’s concept of astronauts exploring thesurface of Mars. Note the similarity to classic exploration paintings, such as Humboldt’s painting of Mount Chimborazo.)

But man’s desire for centrality is still evident in the language of – forces of gravity are described as attractive, and we set time by the rising and setting of the sun rather than the rotation of the Earth. These proposals for manned expansion throughout the solar system seem to be a very awkward way of clinging to the past notions of humans as a special species, one that should be able to beat the game of survival of the fittest. So many of the arguments in favour of manned spaceflight verge on playing God.

A much less romantic viewpoint exists: that we’re not particularly special, and that we don’t really need to expand throughout the solar system. Kurt Vonnegut, while neither scientist nor strictly a science fiction writer, very eloquently expresses this viewpoint in a number of his novels. I recently came across one such example that I find particularly interesting and relevant to the proposal of man’s expansion to Mars and beyond.

Those familiar with Vonnegut will also be familiar with Kilgour Trout, the fictional science fiction writer who makes an appearance in a number of Vonnegut novels. In Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, Trout makes an appearance as the author of a short story entitled “The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore”. (Pictured: Vonnegut.)

In the story, a race of intelligent threads of energy aspires to find a mortal, self-replicating life form capable of spreading throughout the universe. The Elders of the race meet on the planet Tralfamadore to discuss how to achieve this end and determine that the only practical life form that could travel across the universe would have to be small and durable, hitching rides from asteroids. In short, germs. But even the most resilient germs couldn’t withstand a cosmic journey. The elders noticed humans on Earth, a seemingly intelligent species with big brains. Perhaps humans would present germs with the opportunities to strengthen themselves in advance of their cosmic journey.

Trout proceeds in the story to justify all human actions as rooted in unconscious desires implanted in us by the Elders – experimenting with physics and chemistry ensured that the germs would experience the worst kids of torture and develop accordingly. If a germ could survive a nuclear bomb, that stain would be that much more prepared for its cosmic journey. In short, life on Earth was purely to ensure germs would be ready to ship out when the time came.

Particularly poignant is Trout’s explanation of why germs are the ‘chosen’ life form. Humans, he writes, are too bulky, complicated, and needy to survive any kind of spaceflight. In his own words: “How could all that meat, needing so much food and water and oxygen, and with bowel movements so enormous, expect to survive a trip of any distance whatsoever through the limitless void of outer space? It was a miracle that such ravenous and cumbersome giants could make a roundtrip for a 6-pack to the nearest grocery store.” This is not altogether a bad point.

While Trout’s (Vonnegut’s) story is of course purely fantastical, it does raise an interesting alternate, if deeply cynical, viewpoint. Maybe we aren’t the chosen species meant to make our mark across the universe. Perhaps we should leave Mars (and Venus and the Moon) alone. Visit them, but don’t try and turn them into something else. As Vonnegut ends Hocus Pocus: Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.

 

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

Kurt Vonnegut. Hocus Pocus. 1990.

Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot.

“Terraformers Society of Canada”: http://www.terraformers.ca/ This page includes an animation outlining the 12-step terraforming process.

“Mars”: http://www.terraformers.ca/Mars/

“About Mars”, NASA: http://quest.nasa.gov/mars/background/terra2.html

“Why Colonize Mars? – Red Colony”: http://www.redcolony.com/features.php?name=whycolonizemars

“Mars Planetarium – Home”: http://www.marsplanetarium.com/explore.php

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12 thoughts on “Mars: the New Earth?

  1. Personally I think we’re already working for the interests of microbes – think of all our mitochondria, which were once independent bacteria, or the multitude of retroviruses in our genomes.

  2. While I would agree that our existence, our unfounded and perhaps ultimately irresponsible ideals about space colonization are the result of an immature species applying importance to itself through arrogance, there is another factor involved. Humanity is dangerous. We’ve created a nuclear arsenal capable of completely obliterating all life on earth. Our importance, and therefore our responsibility to the persistence of life, came about in the mid 1940s when we developed the means to artificially destroy ourselves and our planet with it. If re-creating earth-like environments on barren worlds ensures the survival of all cataloged plant, animal, and microbial life while we proceed with our progressively dangerous and uneven series of events, I find it hard to view ourselves as simply arrogant, but also necessary. If we are to find any importance in our existence, it should be geared towards the persistence of life given our means (and apparent readiness) to destroying it.

  3. Who’s changing what? Changing our “natural inclination to move and discover new lands” doesn’t seem less extreme than changing Mars when using your scale:

    “Humans are not central to the universe – Earth, our solar system, even our galaxy holds no special position in the greater universe. Our time frame on Earth isn’t remarkable.”

    Emotion shouldn’t come into play when discussing the PROCESS of Natural Selection. Of course humans weren’t “chosen” but if you want to start mourning the neanderthals that’s up to you.

  4. An interesting read. Of course, given our status as simple evolved life forms, whether we were chosen for something is irrelevant. WE choose. Since staying on earth leads only to extinction, it seems rather foolish not to get to work finding new homes.

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