Making the First Martians: Making a Garden on Mars

By Matt Williams | 28 May 2020

(Credit: Daein Ballard / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Welcome to the fifth and final installment in our series on Martian colonization! In our previous installments, we looked at everything that will go into creating a human presence on Mars – transport, housing, economics, and why there are people that want to do it. It is therefore only fitting that we take this opportunity to address the remaining salient issue:

How could humans live on Mars indefinitely?

As has been said throughout this series, Mars is a pretty inhospitable place. In fact, all indications are that it is uninhabitable for life as we know it! But there are ways of altering the Martian environment so that terrestrial life (microbes, plants, animals, and humans) could live there long-term.

This process, where a planet is altered to be more like Earth, is known as ecological engineering. Or, as it’s more commonly known, “terraforming.” This process involves making alterations to the climate (or introducing elements to it) so that it will evolve the necessary systems for supporting life.

A Time-Honored Subject

And when it comes to Mars, no shortage of ink has been spilled describing how we could engineer the Red Planet to make it green. In fact, the concept of terraforming Mars has been explored extensively in scientific papers published over the last seventy years, particularly by NASA scientists like Carl Sagan, John Lovelock, and Robert Zubrin.

In these papers, Sagan (et al.) showed that Mars has the necessary elements to become more “Earth-like”, providing some serious changes are introduced. They further showed that much of the resources needed to make these changes are available for harvesting throughout the Solar System.

However, the credit for popularizing the subject goes to scientists like Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, who explored the subject through science fiction. These fictional treatments have had a significant impact on the public imagination and have helped to inspire advocates like Elon Musk, MarsOne founder Bas Landsdorp,

For example, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (authors of The Expanse series) perhaps said it best through the character of Franklin Degraaf in Leviathan Wakes:

“You know what I love most about Mars? They still dream. We [Earthers] gave up. They’re an entire culture dedicated to a common goal, working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.”

So between science fiction and science fact, what do we know about ecologically engineering the Red Planet? What is it that we need to do to make a garden out of that “lifeless rock.”

The Big Three

To terraform the Red Planet and make it more hospitable to humans, three major things need to be accomplished. These are, in no particular order:

  1. Thicken the atmosphere
  2. Create liquid water on the surface
  3. Heat up the climate

To accomplish any one of these would be nothing short of herculean. Lucky for us, these three goals are entirely interdependent, meaning that any progress in one area will mean progress in the other two. Thickening the atmosphere will mean that Mars will retain more heat from the Sun.

There are a number of options for thickening the atmosphere, which include melting the polar ice caps. These ice layered ice sheets not only contain massive amounts of frozen water, but also abundant amounts of frozen carbon dioxide (CO2, aka. “dry ice”) – depending on the time of year.

By positioning mirrors in orbit that could focus light onto the poles, detonating nuclear devices, impacting them with asteroids or comets, or simply covering them with dark material that would absorb heat, much of the water vapor and CO2 locked in the ice caps could be released into the atmosphere.

This would not only increase atmospheric pressure, but the release of water vapor and CO2 (a major greenhouse gas) would raise temperatures on the planet. The melting of the ice caps would also release water in liquid form, which would restore much of the rivers, lakes, and the northern ocean that once existed on Mars.

Another method would be to introduce volatile compounds like ammonia (NH3), and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere. This could be done by capturing asteroids and/or comets that are known to be rich in frozen volatiles and impacting them around the equatorial region.

This would cause the volatiles to sublimate into gas, which would act as super greenhouse gases. Frozen carbon dioxide is another volatile commonly found in celestial objects, and the addition of this to the Martian atmosphere would be good since current estimates say there is not enough indigenous CO2 to terraform the planet.

Speaking of super greenhouse gases, it has been proposed that fluorine compounds or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could also be introduced into the Martian atmosphere to trigger global warming. In this sense, everything we’ve learned about Earth’s climate and our effect on it (i.e. ruining it through our presence) would actually come in handy on Mars!

As you can see, these and other proposed methods cover all the bases. Thickening the atmosphere means heating up the planet, heating up the planet means turning the ice and permafrost into water, and unleashing the water means thickening the atmosphere with water vapor and CO2.

Make Martian Air Breathable Again!

The hard part is converting the atmosphere to something hospitable to humans. Even after we thicken and warm it up, the Martian atmosphere will still be a toxic fume composed predominantly of carbon dioxide. Luckily, taking another page from Earth, we know of a few possible ways to deal with it.

For one, there are countless strains of bacteria (like cyanobacteria) that consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygenic gas, as do plants and trees. When paired with other species of bacteria, as well as lichens, fungi, and eventually animals, an entire life cycle could be created on Mars.

The only downside to all this is the timeframe involved. According to a 1976 NASA feasibility study, “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“, it would likely take eons:

“The creation of an adequate oxygen and ozone-containing atmosphere on Mars may be feasible through the use of photosynthetic organisms. The time needed to generate such an atmosphere, however, might be several millions of years.”

However, the same study concluded that this could be reduced exponentially (say, a few thousand years) by creating extremophile organisms specifically adapted for the harsh Martian environment. Still, that’s a serious chunk of time. Which brings us to the last challenge…

My Kingdom for a Magnetosphere!

Even after the long and arduous task of terraforming Mars is complete, measures will have to be taken to ensure that the planet doesn’t revert to its current state. In order to do that, Mars will need some sort of magnetic field to ensure that its atmosphere is not slowly stripped away by solar wind.

This is precisely what happened billions of years ago when Mars lost its magnetic field. However, that process took eons the last time it happened, so future Martians need not worry about the atmosphere disappearing overnight. Nevertheless, to maintain atmospheric pressure and protect against harmful radiation, a magnetic field is the best option.

To prevent this from happening again, future Martians will either need to restart the action in Mars’ core or commit to replenishing the climate periodically by pumping more gas into the atmosphere. Another option would be to position an artificial magnetic shield in space at the Sun-Mars L1 Lagrange Point.

Such a field will not only keep the Martian atmosphere shielded over time but reduce the amount of radiation inhabitants are exposed to. This is essential if future colonists ever want to wander around outside without a spacesuit or a lead vest on.

Looking at the Long Haul

No matter what, though, there are some things about Mars we just can’t change. For example, Martian gravity is about 38% of what we experience here on Earth, which poses two problems. On the one hand, the planet will only be able to retain an atmosphere 38% as dense as Earth’s (38 kPa), which is similar to what the air is like near the top of Mt. Everest.

Another issue with Martian gravity is how it will affect human beings over time. Long-term exposure to microgravity is known to cause muscle degeneration, bone density loss, and diminished organ function. While the long-term effects of 0.38 g are not yet known, it’s safe to say that the effects will be similar.

So if there are people who want to become Martians, they will need a strategy for dealing with the long-term effects of Martian gravity. One idea is to have rotating stations in orbit that can simulate 1 g, which people will need to visit periodically to keep up their physical strength and health.

Then again, it’s possible that in the future, genetic engineering or medical treatments will have advanced to the point where they can offer solutions.

Thanks for being a part of our series on Martian Colonization!

For more information on Terraforming Mars, head on over to Universe Today to check out the full-length version!

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Matt Williams is a professional writer, lecturer, and science fiction author whose articles appear in Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, HeroX, Popular Mechanics, and other publications. His first collection of novels is available through Amazon, Audible, and Castrum Press. He lives in Esquimalt, BC, Canada. For more info, check out:⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣,⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ and Follow him at Twitter.

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