Taming the Red Planet

Mars. The usual image of this planet is a dry, rusty, barren wasteland with a thin atmosphere with very little oxygen. Few can imagine it as a green planet, but this may be the landscape our descendants see looking out their window.

NASA has, for the last decade or so, been planning for a manned mission to Mars and dream of a populated base on the surface within 50 years. But in order to make life bearable or even possible will require an extreme change on the planet itself. This could be done by numerous ways but the most logical way is referred to by Kim Stanley Robinson (author of cited article) as "Terraforming". One form of this process involves planting hardy plants and bacteria on the surface to change the carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere into a thicker, oxygen rich one. The down side: this process of "ecopoeisis" - letting nature run its course - can take as long as 100,000 years to reach a point of easy human inhabitance.

The other method is more expensive but could be completed within 500 years. According to Mr. Robinson, by the time we are exploring Mars, we will have well-developed and far-advanced technology, enabling us to engineer the planet into shape. This would involve any or all of the following:

  • Guiding small bodies of matter in space (asteroids, comets) into the Martian atmosphere, leaving behind thickening gases as they burn up.
  • Using mirrors or lenses to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the planet
  • Digging down the mantle of the planet to release warmth
  • Nuclear explosions deep beneath the surface to melt the permafrost
  • Importing Nitrogen from Titan, one of Saturn's moons.

All of these methods would achieve the quick effect of global warming and protection from radiation.

Of course neither method is a sure fix, as Mr. Robinson puts; "…it's better to think of the process as never-ending, like history itself. People will just keep working, and eventually we will inhabit both planets, one whose ecology we will have grown like a garden. It will be a beautiful journey, and it doesn't matter if it's slow. It's the doing that's the fun part."

For another breakthrough method on inhabiting Mars, see Frederik Pohl's short article Remaking our Bodies for Mars at this site: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/bodies.html.

Based on the article from Wired Magazine written by Kim Stanley Robinson at www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/redplanet.html