Martian Paradise: Part 2

I have a lot of inner conflict when it comes to the topic of humans on Mars. There are some amazing, really terrific plans being laid out to begin setting up human colonies on or below the surface by as early as the 2030s, chiefly this one recently announced by our very own space administration. This, directly after the release of Ridley Scott’s wonderful film The Martian, which has been called NASA’s best advertisement in decades, as well as the very recent discovery of water brines on Mars’ surface, something I talked about a couple posts ago.
However, the excitement I get when thinking about these announcements and plans comes in stark contrast with a series of ideas I began exploring a little over a month ago when Elon Musk joked around about nuking Mars’ poles on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Ever since that interview I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the prospect of making Mars hospitable in the near future. Forget living in domes, or below the surface, what would it take to give Mars an atmosphere that plants, animals, and even human beings could breathe? What steps do we need to take to terraform our red neighbor?
One of the main points Musk makes in his interview is that Mars needs to be warmed up if life of any sort is ever going to survive on it. At present, the average temperature on the surface of Mars is around -55° C, about 6° colder than Antarctica in the winter and well below the threshold for even microbial life (well, sort of). That, coupled with the near lack of any atmospheric pressure whatsoever, means no complex lifeforms can survive there. So, how do we warm it up and raise the atmospheric pressure at the same time? Well, that’s actually not as complex as it sounds.
While Elon Musk was half joking with his “nuke it!” plan, there is a lot of merit in that concept. The initial increase in temperature above these ice caps would vaporize them, releasing an amount of CO2 directly into the atmosphere. Not much in the grand scheme, mind you, but enough to raise the temperature maybe by a degree or two. This would start a chain reaction, slowly melting and vaporizing the various pockets of ice and permafrost scattered over the planet’s surface and in its rocks. The more CO2 you release, the more the atmospheric pressure increases, making the planet warm up gradually. The radioactive waste would play perhaps the most important role, spreading its toxic heat throughout the atmosphere and greatly increasing the rate at which the temperature rises. Other steps would certainly need to be taken, but with time the idea is that this process would lead to a livable Mars.
“But Fulton,” You’re thinking, “Nuclear fallout contains cesium-137 which has a half-life of 30 years! How will we live on the surface when the very air will cook us?” Well said! There’s a reason I said, “with time…” Aside from the 30 years it would take for the atmosphere to lose its toxicity, we’re looking at a much, much longer period of time before the atmosphere is breathable at all. By heating up the surface and melting all the ice, we would be creating an atmosphere almost completely composed of carbon-dioxide, which is scientifically classified under, “Stuff not to breathe.” However, while humans and animals are biologically useless in this whole equation, plant life is far from it. As you may already know, assuming you’re knowledge of chemistry isn’t limited to the half-life of radioactive wastes, plants love CO2, they can’t live without it. Whereas we suck in oxygen and pump out CO2, plants do the exact opposite of that, and it is believed that they are the very reason our own planet isn’t in the same shape as Mars.
Before you go getting all excited and envisioning our red neighbor turning green, there are some major hurdles to get over before any of this can be done. For starters, this will require large amounts of water, and I don’t mean poisonously salty Martian brines, I mean heavy, clean irrigation. Another issue is breeding a plant that can thrive off a thin atmosphere and incredibly harsh conditions, including greatly reduced gravity. Perhaps the greatest issue however is the time involved in this endeavor. We’re potentially talking about decades of planning followed by more than a century of solid work, and that worries me. Are people going to get behind a program that will not come to fruition until well after their deaths? The dilemma that started this article, this idea that we need to start a temporary colony on Mars now versus the potential to make a livable planet over the course of multiple generations is one of my greatest vexations right now. I’m deeply vexed. I’m worried that with all the hype around The Martian and these latest announcements by NASA, we’re putting the cart before the horse. Wasting an opportunity to become a truly interplanetary species!
Luckily, I have some neat ideas on how to speed this process up as well as get over a couple of those hurdles, and while I know nearly nothing about plants and botany, I do know a thing or two about water in space, and I also have a very active imagination (plus, NASA’s already working on that whole plants-in-space thing.) I need to pace myself though, so all will be revealed in a later post. Later being tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Martian Paradise

In the days leading up to NASA’s much anticipated announcement this past Monday concerning a recent discovery on Mars, I saw many theories pop up. Would it be microbial life? Fossilized remains? Lizard men? The prevailing theory quickly became that NASA would announce the discovery of liquid water on Mars’ surface, and as many of you already know wound up being correct. I’ll admit, prior to the announcement I was highly doubtful that this was possible. See, the temperature and pressure maintained by Mars’ atmosphere is extremely low in comparison to Earth’s (about 0.6%); causing water to undergo a phenomena known as sublimation. This means that rather than melting, the atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low that H2O goes straight from solid to gas, vaporizing the instant it goes above 0°C. You can witness sublimation first-hand any time you freeze-dry food, or more commonly any time you see a block of dry ice (frozen carbon-dioxide).
However, you probably have guessed by now that all of this is a bit irrelevant at this point because NASA did in fact announce the discovery of flowing Martian water. So how is this possible? Well, as it turns out everything stated above is technically correct (the best kind of correct.) While Mars’ atmosphere does not allow the existence of pure liquid H2O on the surface, water that has been saturated so heavily by perchlorate salts (ClO4) that the freezing temperature has been lowered from 0°C (32°F) to -70°C (-94°F) apparently is allowed.
So! What does this mean? Well, the quantity of water observed is very small so far, but so is the quantity of Mars’ surface that has been observed up close. Since 2006, only around 3% of Mars’ surface has been photographed at a resolution high enough to observe these brines. Still, life as we know it would not be able to exist in water activity as low as we are currently observing, let alone at this level of salinity. That being sad, this has greatly increased the odds of life existing at one point on Mars. While perchlorate salts have the ability to absorb water molecules from the surrounding air, as well as from the ice captured in Martian soil, as mentioned earlier the atmosphere on Mars is .6% the density of that on Earth, making it a very unlikely source. I personally believe it is far more likely that these brines will further our knowledge about the existence and eventual fate of Mars’ long extinct oceans, though whether or not they are remnants of said oceans remains to be seen (and is unlikely given the near 4 billion year time frame.)
Regardless, this is all very exciting news, and I can’t wait until more information is released!