How Feasible is Terraforming?

October 19, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Artist's impression of an astronaut on the surface of Mars
Photo credit: D Mitriy/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As humans continue to destroy our worldly inheritance for future generations, could we build a new home on another planet?

Despite our best efforts, we haven’t managed to find another planet that’s quite as homey as Earth. No other world has the same combination of water, a breathable atmosphere, and just the right amount of sunlight to warm us up without broiling us to a crisp.

But according to a few big dreamers in the field of astronomy, we’re not restricted to living out the rest of our species’ lifetime here on Earth. To no one’s surprise, Carl Sagan was the first to propose “terraforming” Venus, or re-shaping it in Earth’s image, in 1961. Since then, our discovery that Venus’s atmosphere is full of thick, noxious sulfuric acid has ruled out the third planet from the Sun as a viable “second Earth.”

SEE ALSO: It's Official: Mars Has Liquid Water

Instead, Mars became the target for serious contemplations of terraforming. This speculation ramped up as we learned more about Mars’s previously habitable conditions. Scientists believe that Mars had a much more Earth-like environment millions of years in its past, with a thick, sheltering atmosphere and abundant water. This makes Mars the best candidate for terraforming.

So how exactly do we transform the frozen desert of Mars into a lush oasis? Basically, the same processes that are currently leaching Earth of its biodiversity and formerly ample natural resources can actually have an invigorating effect on Mars. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, have become a dirty word among environmentalists for their powerful effect on global warming, but they would be a blessing on Mars. Releasing CFCs into the atmosphere could trap the heat from the Sun and raise surface temperatures by an average of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

This initial temperature boost would jumpstart the vaporization of frozen carbon dioxide in the south pole, releasing even more greenhouse gases and generating a much greater temperature rise — a full 70 degrees Celsius. Such a balmy climate could melt the vast stores of ice beneath Mars’s surface and build up a breathable atmosphere, unlocking its great potential to support life.

To more rapidly achieve this degree of global warming, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, famously suggested detonating a few nuclear fusion bombs in the sky over Mars — “a series of very large, by our standards, but very small by calamity standards — essentially having two tiny pulsing suns over the poles.” Such technology doesn’t yet exist, and it sounds like it could easily spiral out of control.

But terraforming has definitely moved beyond the realm of mere wild speculation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has heavily invested in research to build life forms capable of tolerating pre-livable conditions on Mars. Using genetic engineering and synthetic biology, scientists can design bacteria, algae, and plants that will happily go about their photosynthetic business — even in Mars’s dry soil and thin atmosphere. Eventually, they could produce enough oxygen for fussier organisms like humans.

And let’s not forget about our closest celestial neighbor: the Moon. NASA plans to fund projects that could renovate a lunar crater into a home for robots that would someday pave the way for living things. In particular, Shackleton Crater, located on the South Pole, would make a great dwelling for a platoon of solar-powered robots. The project would first send rovers to set up solar reflectors around the rim of the crater, which would capture and direct sunlight down into the crater’s depths. The robots could then work on making the crater suitable for a miniature base for lunar operations.

All of these technologies remain in their infancy, but the fact that we even have plans for expanding habitable life to other planets is an exciting prospect. But while it seems that terraforming will eventually be feasible from a technological standpoint, the economics may lie completely beyond the scope of any international budget.

Terraforming also represents a substantial interference that makes some ethicists uncomfortable. Is human life valuable enough that it deserves to supplant existing ecologies on other planets? This quandary becomes more pressing as we inch closer to discovering existing extraterrestrial life that wouldn’t appreciate our colonization efforts. Considering the disastrous impact we’ve had on our own planet, ethicists wonder if other worlds might be better off if we leave them alone.

Clearly, there are a load of issues in the technology, economics, and ethics of terraforming that we must be smoothed out before we even formulate any such designs towards other planets. We will have to take a long, hard look at our presence here on Earth, and perhaps address some of the more immediate issues facing our survival on our home planet in the meantime.

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