A future Mars protected from the direct solar
wind should come to a new equilibrium allowing an extensive atmosphere to support liquid water on its surface.
Credit: J.L.Green, et al.

Credit for background image: Michael Carroll


What are the prospects for altering the environment of Mars more to our liking?

Can the Red Planet be terraformed was recently spotlighted during last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held at The Woodlands, Texas.

Terraforming serves up a variety of meanings, be it raising the pressure and temperature enough to allow intermittent liquid water and possible plant growth, to increasing the pressure and temperature so that humans could work directly on the Mars surface, requiring only breathing apparatus to provide oxygen


Two phase approach

A “terraforming timeline” has been outlined by Aaron Berliner at the University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, and Chris McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

In their LPSC poster paper, they explain that terraforming Mars can be divided into two phases:

  • Warming the planet from the present average surface temperature of -60ºC to a value close to Earth’s average temperature to +15ºC, and recreating a thick carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere. This warming phase is relatively easy and quick, and could take roughly 100 years.
  • The second phase is producing levels of oxygen in the atmosphere that would allow humans and other large mammals to breathe normally. This oxygenation phase is relatively difficult and would take 100,000 years or more, unless one postulates a technological breakthrough.

Wanted: roadmap

The researchers propose, in part, that given the long-term timeline of a possible terraforming endeavor, there’s need to develop a roadmap that outlines the technological processes and advancements required to terraform the Red Planet.

That roadmap would involve adaptation of current and future robotic Martian missions for measuring specific elemental and mineral samples such that a geolocated Martian resource database can be constructed. Also there’s need for mathematical modeling of Martian terraforming to calculate costs for a specific set of terraform-related reactions.

Scene from “Mars,” a National Geographic Channel miniseries.
Credit: National Geographic, Imagine, RadicalMedia, Robert Viglasky


Start now

In addition, Berliner and McKay see a focused synthetic biology initiative for engineering organisms for Martian in-situ resource utilization. In addition they advise development of localized para-terraforming systems for evaluating processes in a controlled area on Martian surface and subsurface via probes.

Furthermore, the researchers envision a planetary protection agreement describing restrictions of terraforming processes “such that Mars can be maintained for future studies and terraforming can be explored beyond experimental and computational means.”

The Mars specialists report that such a roadmap should be started now, as it will require the input from many communities within space sciences, astrobiology, geosciences, and biological sciences.

CO2 deliverables

According to Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the terraforming of Mars in the near term is not feasible.

Artist concept of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Terraforming Mars would involve putting enough carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere to provide substantial greenhouse warming.

“Is enough CO2 available to do this? No,” explains Jakosky who is also the scientific leader of NASA’s now orbiting Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission that is busily studying the Martian atmosphere.

“It is not feasible today, using existing technology or concepts, to carry out any activities that significantly increase the atmospheric CO2 pressure and/or provide any significant warming of the planet,” he explains in a poster paper presented at the LPSC last week.

Extremely limited

Jakosky and his co-author, Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, conclude that the ability to release enough CO2 into the Mars atmosphere to provide any significant greenhouse warming is “extremely limited.”

This is the case even if most of the CO2 present on early Mars still remained on the planet, locked up in adsorbed gas and carbonates. Greenhouse warming is further limited in the likely event that the bulk of the early CO2 has been lost to space, as suggested by recent measurements.

While greenhouse warming is still conceivable by large-scale manufacturing of chlorofluorocarbons, as some researchers have suggested, this approach “is very far into the future at best.”

To view the full abstracts and more information presented in the two papers, go to:

The Terraforming Timeline


Can Mars Be Terrraformed?



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