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Thread: Is Elon Musk correct in assuming we can terraform Mars?

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    Is Elon Musk correct in assuming we can terraform Mars?

    Would the atmosphere be able to hold oxygen? Would the lack of magnetic field be a problem? Is it possible to terra form, and if yes how long would it take?

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    Mars can hold an oxygen atmosphere for millions of years. An atmosphere deep enough to have an Earthlike surface pressure will shield the surface far more effectively than Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field.

    The last question is impossible to answer, it would depend entirely on how hard you are working to get it done. It would be a vast investment in energy and resources that would be far beyond what can be supplied from Earth. It is well within what's available within the solar system, but people will have other things they want to do. The people living on Mars might also have complaints about the planned shifts in climate and atmospheric composition and extreme intensification of weather that would result.

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    We could, but why bother? Too much work for an uncertain result. Domes and tunnels are the way to go.
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    Better to terraform the moon. Atmosphere wouldn't last quite as long as mars, but insolation would be right for earth plants, and we'd have a much easier time getting there. Cometary bombardment for water and air wouldn't be nearly as massive an operation as that for mars. Of course, there's a chance we might miss and hit a nearby planet instead.
    Either body, we'll be needing genuine nuclear powered craft in space. I don't see us building the manufacturing facilities for those anytime soon.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Better to terraform the moon. Atmosphere wouldn't last quite as long as mars, but insolation would be right for earth plants, and we'd have a much easier time getting there. Cometary bombardment for water and air wouldn't be nearly as massive an operation as that for mars. Of course, there's a chance we might miss and hit a nearby planet instead.
    Either body, we'll be needing genuine nuclear powered craft in space. I don't see us building the manufacturing facilities for those anytime soon.
    The rotation period of the moon is a much bigger problem than the insolation on Mars. Many plants would thrive at ~1.5 AU, it's more light than a lot of shade-loving plants prefer. Few would tolerate 2 weeks of darkness and 2 weeks of light.

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    Quote Originally Posted by The_Radiation_Specialist View Post
    Would the atmosphere be able to hold oxygen? Would the lack of magnetic field be a problem? Is it possible to terra form, and if yes how long would it take?
    The issues with the atmosphere only matter after many millions of years, and there would be other long term issues too (for instance, on Earth, there's geological recycling of nutrients, on Mars, in the very long term, nutrients would become depleted on high ground unless there was some artificial process to recycle them). And we don't know how many currently unknown issues there would be for terraforming.

    But the key issue I had with Musk's claim (and its a fairly common issue) is the idea that terraforming would be relatively easy. In fact, it would be extremely difficult, and in recent years there has been evidence it is even harder than previously thought. Based on the volatiles budget on Mars, it's pretty much certain much of any atmosphere would have to be imported. Venus would be a great source for much of it, except for the large gravity well.

    Another thing that's often not appreciated is that Mars is very cold. To make it reasonably habitable for anything besides some extremophile single celled species, it would need to be kept warm artificially, probably by some combination of gigantic space based solar reflectors and super greenhouse gasses. Essentially "terraforming" would mean turning Mars into a gigantic artificial habitat. And even with advanced technology it wouldn't be quick. Perhaps with self replicating machine technology we could do it in a thousand years or so, but it could take much longer.

    It probably makes much more sense to build habitats on Mars, which can become increasingly advanced over time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by cjameshuff View Post
    The rotation period of the moon is a much bigger problem than the insolation on Mars. Many plants would thrive at ~1.5 AU, it's more light than a lot of shade-loving plants prefer. Few would tolerate 2 weeks of darkness and 2 weeks of light.
    Most crop plants like plenty of light. We do have ways to generate light when it's datk, and vegetative growth is usually best w near 24 hour light.
    Moon is a smaller, maybe even achievable project.

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    Why are we discussing terraforming other planets if a 2 degree change of temperature on earth is "a point of no return and we're all doomed"? Serious question. Are we getting extremely ahead of ourselves to think of terraforming a planet if we can't cool down our own planet a mere 2 degrees, or am I missing something?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas View Post
    Why are we discussing terraforming other planets if a 2 degree change of temperature on earth is "a point of no return and we're all doomed"? Serious question. Are we getting extremely ahead of ourselves to think of terraforming a planet if we can't cool down our own planet a mere 2 degrees, or am I missing something?
    I suspect a lot of multitasking is going on, everything being juggled at once. Also, politics v. reverse-engineering our own planet.
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    To beef up Mars atmosphere would need to impact Mars with many volatile rich asteroids and comets.

    But if we had the wherewithal to do that, we would also be able to establish biomes on the asteroids where the volatiles reside. Which would give us much more real estate and natural resources than terraforming Mars. See Terraforming Mars vs Orbital Habs.

    But if we were able to terraform Mars, the atmosphere would last for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years. Atmospheric erosion via solar wind is very slow. Too much is hype is made about this shield some propose to place at the Sun Mars L1.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas View Post
    Why are we discussing terraforming other planets if a 2 degree change of temperature on earth is "a point of no return and we're all doomed"? Serious question. Are we getting extremely ahead of ourselves to think of terraforming a planet if we can't cool down our own planet a mere 2 degrees, or am I missing something?
    Several points.

    As far as climate change is concerned, I don't think anyone reasonable is saying a 2 degree change in temperature is "a point of no return and we're all doomed", though it will certainly lead to very, very serious consequences.

    Second, as Roger E. Moore says, it is one think talking about mucking around with another, currently uninhabited planet, and another thing mucking around with your own planet; the one on which you are currently living. The consequences if you get things wrong might be much worse. And also: politics.

    Third, yeah, you are right. If we can't make an adjustment to Earth, then we probably don't know enough to turn Mars from lifeless to livable. On the flip side, what we do learn about engineering our own planet may teach us things for future terminating projects; on Mars or elsewhere.
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    Still a big fan of sending bulldozers and mining equipment to the Moon to create underground colonies (or starting factories there to create the mining machines of local materials), then restarting the improved performance on Mars. Eliminates all magnetic field and terraforming worries in the near term, allows creation of equipment storage space for terraforming Mars when we figure out how to do it (without crashing worlds into the planet). Plus people have somewhere to go when they get there.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas View Post
    Why are we discussing terraforming other planets if a 2 degree change of temperature on earth is "a point of no return and we're all doomed"?
    There's talk of the Younger Dryas being caused by the impact of a 0.6km asteroid over in the geology forum.
    We could probably engineer a similar event. However, people are not thrilled with the plan.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    There's talk of the Younger Dryas being caused by the impact of a 0.6km asteroid over in the geology forum.
    We could probably engineer a similar event. However, people are not thrilled with the plan.
    I think, in terraforming / planet-engineering, as in medicine, the phrase "Primum non nocere" (first, do no harm) might be very applicable.
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    With adequate modeling, it may be possible to do it with no harm. There's a lot of unused territory in Antarctica.
    Perhaps 3 or 4 smaller impacts, to get more controlled effects. It'd need to be run through supercomputers several times before deciding whether a go ahead was reasonable.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    With adequate modeling, it may be possible to do it with no harm. There's a lot of unused territory in Antarctica.
    Perhaps 3 or 4 smaller impacts, to get more controlled effects. It'd need to be run through supercomputers several times before deciding whether a go ahead was reasonable.
    And raise sea levels by ???
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    That's one of the reasons you model beforehand.

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    To go back to the OP, yes, you could terraform (parts of*) Mars, given time and resources. Exactly what resources and how much time are currently areas of hot debate. Scientists and Engineers are arguing using limited data of Mars conditions, technological developments, and access to extraterrestrial materials such as asteroids, comets, and moons.


    *Much of Mars is so much higher in altitude than the rest that only the lowlands will have breathable atmosphere.
    Last edited by Noclevername; 2019-Jan-10 at 03:09 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Third, yeah, you are right. If we can't make an adjustment to Earth, then we probably don't know enough to turn Mars from lifeless to livable. On the flip side, what we do learn about engineering our own planet may teach us things for future terminating projects; on Mars or elsewhere.
    And, what does "terraform" mean?

    I'm finding out that not everyone wants it to be exactly like the conditions in my living room ("grapaform"), I mean, does anyone want 1% of the entire surface area covered by a big hairy animal(s)? Would anyone be happy if the conditions on Mars were like Amundsen-Scott?

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    Is Elon Musk correct in assuming we can terraform Mars?

    And of course xkcd has been here already:

    https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/marsiforming.png


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    There's also the importance of time scale. It's almost certainly possible to terraform Mars, but a time estimate on the order of thousands of years is probably reasonable. Similarly, we can almost certainly make the necessary changes to adjust the Earth's temperature up or down, but the time scale is probably long-ish. And of course, we'd have to choose to work actively to make those changes.

    Heck, one could make the argument that we are right now in the process of adjusting Earth's temperature (upward), and doing so relatively quickly as such things go.
    Conserve energy. Commute with the Hamiltonian.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Grey View Post
    There's also the importance of time scale. It's almost certainly possible to terraform Mars, but a time estimate on the order of thousands of years is probably reasonable.
    Good point.

    There is also the matter of how much does one want to adjust Mars. Maybe one would be satisfied to adjust it so that one didn't instantly suffocate or freeze - maybe equivalent to a nice day on top of Everest, rather than a nice day on the French Rivera.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Good point.

    There is also the matter of how much does one want to adjust Mars. Maybe one would be satisfied to adjust it so that one didn't instantly suffocate or freeze - maybe equivalent to a nice day on top of Everest, rather than a nice day on the French Rivera.
    You'd get useful results from just vaporizing the polar CO2 deposits. More moderate temperatures, lower radiation environment, more effective aerobraking for incoming spacecraft, reduced pressure differential for surface activities in suits. Might also stabilize the weather...or the denser atmosphere might make it worse.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Good point.

    There is also the matter of how much does one want to adjust Mars. Maybe one would be satisfied to adjust it so that one didn't instantly suffocate or freeze - maybe equivalent to a nice day on top of Everest, rather than a nice day on the French Rivera.
    That's still a huge leap, and if you can reach Everest level, there's probably no point in stopping there. Also keep in mind a thicker atmosphere can make it easier to freeze due to heat transfer from convection.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grapes View Post
    And, what does "terraform" mean?

    I'm finding out that not everyone wants it to be exactly like the conditions in my living room ("grapaform"), I mean, does anyone want 1% of the entire surface area covered by a big hairy animal(s)? Would anyone be happy if the conditions on Mars were like Amundsen-Scott?
    I'd consider minimal terraforming to mean a breathable atmosphere, a somewhat reasonable temperature, and other environmental factors (at least some available water, etc.) that can support higher plants and animals (including humans) without special equipment at least on part of the planet.

    There have also been ideas about improving things to a degree to support a minimal ecosystem, or "ecopoiesis" that can support extremophiles. That's interesting if you just want to establish some form of life, but I don't really see the point, especially since it probably would be fairly temporary without artificial maintenance.

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    If we could tweak Mars just enough so that macroscopic life could live there, then it could be possible to tweak humanity just enough so that we could live in these new, slightly improved conditions. Martian humans would be significantly different from Earth humans, but they would be able to live in colder, lower pressure regimes with lower gravity. In fact an artificial habitat adapted for Martian humans would require less atmosphere and slower rotation. In the far future, Martian humans might outnumber Earth humans significantly because they are more hardy.

    In any case, the cold conditions on Mars might dictate that the terraformation processes entail increasing the level of carbon dioxide way beyond comfortable levels for Earth humans. In fact a terraformed Mars might even be toxic for Earthites, and we might not be able to visit them easily, just like they might not be able to visit us.

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    Quote Originally Posted by eburacum45 View Post
    If we could tweak Mars just enough so that macroscopic life could live there, then it could be possible to tweak humanity just enough so that we could live in these new, slightly improved conditions. Martian humans would be significantly different from Earth humans, but they would be able to live in colder, lower pressure regimes with lower gravity. In fact an artificial habitat adapted for Martian humans would require less atmosphere and slower rotation. In the far future, Martian humans might outnumber Earth humans significantly because they are more hardy.

    In any case, the cold conditions on Mars might dictate that the terraformation processes entail increasing the level of carbon dioxide way beyond comfortable levels for Earth humans. In fact a terraformed Mars might even be toxic for Earthites, and we might not be able to visit them easily, just like they might not be able to visit us.
    High CO2 levels are only needed if you're relying on CO2 for greenhouse warming. There are much more effective greenhouse gases. Methane is far more effective for a given concentration and can be produced along with oxygen from the CO2 and water. Carbon tetrafluoride requires fluorine but is a couple orders of magnitude more effective, while not interfering with the formation of an ozone layer. Sulfur hexafluoride requires sulfur and even more fluorine, but is even more effective while likely remaining ozone-safe.

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    We shouldn't mix methane and oxygen in an atmosphere, because they react with each other. All you'll get is more carbon dioxide and water.
    Fluorine is quite a rare element compared to carbon, oxygen or hydrogen, so I can't really imagine a planetary atmosphere that includes effective amounts of fluoride compounds (unless we find a good source of fluorine out there somewhere).

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    Quote Originally Posted by eburacum45 View Post
    We shouldn't mix methane and oxygen in an atmosphere, because they react with each other. All you'll get is more carbon dioxide and water.
    Fluorine is quite a rare element compared to carbon, oxygen or hydrogen, so I can't really imagine a planetary atmosphere that includes effective amounts of fluoride compounds (unless we find a good source of fluorine out there somewhere).
    The global warming potential of methane in Earth's atmosphere over 100 years is 34 times that of CO2 despite it having a limited lifetime, reduced sunlight and colder overall temperatures would extend its lifetime on Mars. A fraction of a percent of methane would have the effect of a severely toxic proportion of CO2, a full 1-2% would accomplish many times more than all of Mars' CO2 could. The fluorine-containing compounds are a couple orders of magnitude more effective (7350 times as effective over 100 years for CF4, 22800 times for SF6), are very long-lived, and do not need to comprise a substantial portion of the atmosphere to have a useful effect.

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    Okay, there may be some merit in these alternatives to CO2.

    Methane was surprisingly abundant in the archaic atmosphere of Earth, even though the oxygen level was increasing rapidly. Maybe it was being replenished by biological action, despite having a very short atmospheric lifetime. With luck and skill we might be able to recreate this biological methanogenesis, using genetically engineered organisms of some sort.

    Fluorine is ten thousand times less abundant in the cosmos than carbon, but if sulphur hexaflouride is 22800 times more effective than CO2, then it might just be a reasonable candidate. Assuming that this chemical is non-toxic and has no other undesirable side-effects. Many fluorine compounds are toxic, so this may be a problem. I've been drinking fluorinated water all my life, which may be a good sign.
    Last edited by eburacum45; 2019-Jan-12 at 11:28 PM.

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