The notion of terraforming and colonizing Mars has graduated from the realm of wildly imaginative science fiction into the realm of real world possibility, but “possibility” and “practical reality” currently remain - literally - worlds apart.
In the August EXPLORER article, “[PFItemLinkShortcode|id:21784|type:standard|anchorText:How to Create a New Home of the Red Planet|cssClass:|title:|PFItemLinkShortcode],” AAPG Astrogeology Committee members Bruce Cutright and William Ambrose explained how the planet Mars could be terraformed into a new home for humanity, following the plan outlined by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin and NASA planetary scientist Christopher McKay, which Ambrose and Cutright presented recently at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.
That plan involves crashing comets onto the surface, putting giant parabolic reflectors in orbit and pumping greenhouse gases into the sparse atmosphere of Mars - all in an effort to raise the temperature and atmospheric pressure to something closer to Earth’s conditions.
But is that plan feasible with today’s technology?
“Sort of the answer to your question is, ‘Yes, but … ’” Ambrose said.
“We certainly understand how we could do it - the energy that it would take to find the right-sized comet and bring it into a grazing-type orbit, so the impact energy would be minimized,” he said.
“The actual rocket engine to do that is under development,” he continued. “Realistically, it would have to be something like the nuclear thermal rocket engines or the nuclear-electric rocket engines that have been tested, that we know we could build them if we had the will.
“So, the answer is, ‘Certainly. We can do that.’ We don’t happen to have those engines sitting in a warehouse now, but we certainly have the plans and the capability of doing that,” Ambrose added.
Obviously, turning Mars into a new Earth is still a few decades off - but so are slightly less ambitious goals, like those of the highly publicized and controversial non-profit organization Mars One, which aims to establish a permanent colony on Mars through a series of one-way trips by 2027.
This is according to AAPG member James F. Reilly who, as a NASA astronaut with multiple shuttle missions and space walks under his belt, knows about the planning and preparation needed for such an undertaking.
Reilly also presented at the recent ACE in Denver.
Simply getting to Mars, he said, is a significant enough challenge in itself - and not just because of the practical limits of the available propulsion technology. We also lack the capability for the kind of indefinitely sustainable, self-contained artificial environment needed even to visit Mars, much less remain there.
“The current estimates are that we’re going to have to recycle about 97 percent of everything we’re going to be using and doing on the way there, while we’re on the surface and, of course, coming back,” Reilly said.
“And we don’t really do that kind of recycling in any aspect of our lives here on the ground, or even in space for that matter,” he added. “We actually have a fairly high consumable rate, even on the International Space Station.”
There have been numerous experiments in self-contained environments, like the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 and the Johnson Space Center’s enclosed mission area, but none have been self-sustaining, Reilly explained.
“None of them have been really full up where you’re growing your food, you’re also growing the plants that will regenerate the oxygen in the environment for the crew, the completely enclosed water filtration systems that are going to be required,” he said. “There are pieces of that, of course, in the International Space Station, but nowhere have we actually done end-to-end, full up, completely enclosed environments that would be the equivalent to what we would have to have in order to go to Mars.”
There’s also the psychological health of the astronauts to consider.
“Photosensitivity would be a big issue for folks,” Reilly said.
“One of the misperceptions about Mars comes from the imagery we get back. If you were to look at, say, the Rover imagery, they’ve been not only color-balanced, but also given a brightness that would reflect what we would see here in daylight on the surface of the Earth. The actual fact of the matter is that Mars is only receiving half the solar energy, in terms of light, that we get here. So living on the surface of Mars would
be very much like living in permanent twilight,” he explained. “The brightest part of your day would be evening lighting that we would have here.”
He also noted that anyone traveling to Mars would have to come to terms with the fact that they wouldn’t hear the sound of rain, the sound of birds singing, or see green trees and grass for several long years, which would take more of a psychological toll than many might realize.
“You’re going to be gone from home for somewhere around three years, and you’ve got to figure out how we’re going to accomplish that ability to give them sort of the Star Trek ‘holodeck’ experience so that they can ‘come home’ at least for 30 minutes or so,” said Reilly. “The things that you don’t even think about, that we take for granted, are the things we would probably miss the most.”
Mars might be the next logical giant leap for mankind, but it’s going to take quite a few smaller steps first to get a running start for that leap.
“We’re not quite there yet. We’re working on it. In fact, a number of major projects on the International Space Station are to look at how we would actually get there and survive,” Reilly said.
In addition, he said work continues on Earth toward creating the self-contained, self-sustaining environments needed to colonize Mars.
“Let’s pursue that. If you want to pursue a Mars One-type objective, let’s see if we can make that work for that period of time here on the ground,” he said.
Also, along with being a worthwhile object of exploration for its own sake, Earth’s moon makes for a pretty good “practice Mars,” if we can muster the public interest to return.
“The moon is the perfect laboratory for that, particularly looking at the ability to put people in a completely enclosed and regenerable environment but have them close enough so that if you have a crop failure or something unforeseen happens, you’re only two or three days away from getting them spare parts, or if the absolute worst happens, getting back home,” Reilly said.
His hope and expectation is that lunar exploration in the next few years - and Martian exploration in the next 50 - will begin to see a model similar to that of Antarctica, which has had a permanent research presence since the 1940s, cycling teams in and out in four- to six-month increments.
“When it comes to putting a permanent human presence on the surface,” Reilly said, “I think that under the current spending profiles that people seem to be looking at, we’re 30-50 years out.”
A New World
And if 30-50 years seems like a long time, consider this: That’s the fast-track, and even that will be possible only if the decision-makers, and the people who vote for them, have the will to do it.
“The benefits are somewhat diffuse,” Reilly said. “In other words, it’s hard to advertise ‘this is what it’s going to be worth to society in the future.’
“Of course, it’s paid for itself many times over in all the things we have done up to this point in space exploration,” he continued, “but it’s hard to recognize that on the front end, so governments have to go to the populace to fund the projects.”
However, if we can clear the technological hurdles necessary to get humans to Mars, the benefits will go far beyond having a new planet to inhabit.
It would help to renew the planet we already have.
For instance, if scientists and engineers can crack the code on self-contained, sustainable artificial environments to serve as interplanetary and Martian habitats, Reilly said, “there’ll be literally hundreds of spinoffs and benefits that can be used here on the ground.”
“The spinoffs that everybody talks about from the Apollo program - the computer systems every one of us uses now, the life-support and human health technology and health monitoring that came out of the Apollo program - those are the things that have benefited everyone, not just the astronauts that have to go to the moon,” Ambrose added. “(AAPG Honorary member) Harrison Schmitt’s discovery of helium-3 and quantification of titanium and other resources on the moon - that doesn’t just stand as an independent discovery. That stands as a huge reservoir of energy that we, the human species, will be able to exploit in the future through helium-3 deuterium fusion reactions.”
The benefits would be inestimable, while the price of not doing it would be calamitous for the human race.
“What if we choose not to explore? What if we as geologists and engineers choose not to explore?” Cutright asked. “It’s a failure of nerve were we to choose not to do that, and it comes back to the most basic every day life of every human: Shall we choose to have a declining standard of living? Shall we choose to have a declining quality of life? Because that’s what the choice is.
“We wax philosophical, but these are truly, very much at-home practical questions that we as members of AAPG need to talk about and need to promote,” he added. “All people aren’t going to resonate with the idea of going to terraform Mars, but when you bring it back to ‘Shall we choose not to improve our quality of life? Shall we choose not to educate our children?’ Those are the choices that really underlie this whole idea of choosing to expand and prosper as a species.”
All photos courtesy of NASA