Have you ever stopped to think about what the Red Planet would be like if it were terraformed? There are several initiatives underway with the goal of sending humans to Mars, as you may know, and the first manned missions are expected to begin between this decade and the next. There are even plans to establish colonies there. But the Red Planet does not offer what we can call a hospitable environment for humans, if any explorer wants to stay on Martian soil for longer periods, it will be necessary to make some adaptations.
As Erin Carson pointed out in a fascinating article published by the website C|Net, to get an idea, the average temperature on Mars is around – 60°C and, in addition to the planet’s atmosphere being composed mainly of carbon dioxide, it is about 100 times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere. This means that the Martian atmospheric layer, in addition to being extremely thin and toxic to humans, will not offer much protection against radiation from space.
To become minimally ‘habitable’, Mars would have to go through a process called terraforming – that is, humans would have to alter the planet so that it becomes more like Earth. This would mean finding ways to increase atmospheric pressure and make it more dense and ‘breathable’.
In addition, it would be necessary to produce water, populate the Martian soil with microbes (so that it would be possible to grow food there), find a way to increase the temperature… And how could we do that? Well, there is no shortage of suggestions – some more imaginative and others more realistic. Let’s start with the most radical ones.
How to increase the temperature of Mars?
According to Erin, proposals emerged in the 1990s, such as the construction of giant mirrors on Mars and placing them in orbit around the planet. For what? To reflect more sunlight towards the surface and thus raise the temperature. Another effect predicted by the creators of this alternative would be the melting of the frozen water present in the Martian soil – which would result in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Another suggestion is that factories should be built on the Red Planet with the objective of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Yet another way to release greenhouse gases on Mars would be to search for ammonia-rich asteroids – which would have to be captured, transported to the vicinity of Mars and launched on a collision course against the planet in order to introduce this compound into the Martian environment.
And, of course, we could not fail to mention the suggestion made by Elon Musk, a person committed to colonizing Mars, who proposed to explode a portion of nuclear bombs on the planet to melt all the water from the polar caps and release CO2 in large quantities.
The realistic proposals
By now, you may have realized that all of these ideas, while intended to make Mars more hospitable for life, have immense potential to go wrong and have horrendous impacts on the Martian environment.
The fact that there are radical proposals like those mentioned above does not mean that terraforming Mars is impossible or needs to be so dramatic as to change its environment so much. And, if the plan to send manned missions and even to establish colonies on the planet comes to fruition – and everything indicates that this will happen sooner or later – it will be necessary to take measures to make it possible for humans to stay there.
More realistic possibilities, according to Erin, involve using aerogels – a solid material of extremely low density composed of 99% air – in the construction of structures that could be used as a shelter by humans and to serve as a greenhouse for growing food. The colonization process could start with the creation of only basic units, with the number of buildings increasing as needed.
Aerogels could even be used to get around the freezing cold of Mars. After all, studies conducted with this material in situations that replicated the conditions on the Red Planet have pointed out that its use can provide not only thermal insulation, but also increased temperatures, opening the possibility for the development of portable devices that could melt ice to obtain Water.
Furthermore, with advances in bioengineering and nanotechnology, in the coming years, plants capable of surviving in the Martian environment can be developed and produce not only food, but also essential elements for the survival of future colonizers. Maybe CRISPR can do the job.
These options, in addition to being much simpler to devise – as well as much more realistic alternatives – would have an absurdly smaller impact than detonating nuclear bombs, hitting asteroids against the surface of Mars and creating an entire industrial sector to release gases into the atmosphere. In any case, the colonization of Mars is a natural consequence of the exercise of what defines us as human beings: we are explorers, and the Cosmos awaits us.