Could we ever actually live on Mars?
This is a serious question that everyone from Elon Musk, to top scientists, to everyday people are thinking about. Should we be making preparations to create a new home out in the solar system, and even if we should, can we? There are a few different ways we could make it work, one of which is through terraforming Mars. But what exactly is terraforming, and how would we do it? Here’s how.
1. Define terraforming.
Before you can start terraforming, you need to know what it means. Terraforming is altering a planet to make it suitable for Earth’s animal life, including humans. It involves assessing the current livability of a planet (in Mars’ case, zero) and evaluating what is needed to make it suitable for life. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need the ability to recreate Earth and society as we know it, but it doesn’t include living in space suits. The goal is to create a place where life can continue on relatively normally.
2. Thicken Mars’ atmosphere.
One of the biggest problems with living on Mars currently is the fact that the red planet has very little atmosphere. It’s too small to generate a magnetic field like the Earth does, so over the years the Sun has blown away its atmosphere, leaving it exposed to radiation and freezing cold temperatures. To make the planet livable, we would need to get that atmosphere back. This in and of itself is a gargantuan task. Some ideas have included releasing the CO2 trapped in Mars’ ice caps, but NASA recently studied the idea and concluded that there isn’t enough CO2 on Mars to create a sufficient atmosphere. Greenhouse gases would instead need to be transported to the planet from sources that include asteroids, Earth itself, and even the moons of other planets.
3. Lower the planet’s albedo.
Mars reflects much of the sunlight it receives back out into space, keeping the planet unbearably cold. One way to up the warmth would be to lower the planet’s albedo, or its reflectivity. This could be done by adding dark, low-albedo materials to the planet’s surface, or even placing plants that are dark in color close to the polar caps. If they work, these two methods could not only make the climate warmer, but also help the polar caps melt, releasing liquid water and CO2 in the process.
4. Introduce oxygen.
Humans need to breathe, which is a problem on Mars. The lack of a substantial atmosphere means there’s not enough oxygen to allow us to breathe without assistance. We would either have to cart oxygen around, which isn’t feasible in the long term, or we would need to alter the atmosphere once again and introduce massive amounts of oxygen. We could use photosynthetic organisms, but the amount of time it would take to create sufficient oxygen and an ozone layer makes the idea impractical. There’s a lot of technology we will need before terraforming becomes possible, but the ideas are out there. The time may one day come when we need them.