Abstract: The authors outline a novel proposal for engineering the Martian environment so that it is conducive to human life. This two-step proposal involves the total transfer of fossil-fuel extraction companies and their executive staff to the surface of the Red Planet in tandem with a carbon capture and export program implemented on Earth. Taking into account the current level of technological development and political trends on Earth, the authors believe that their proposal could realistically render the Red Planet habitable by the end of the century.
The first scientific proposal for engineering the atmosphere of another planet to make it conducive to life — a process known as terraforming — was proposed by the planetary scientist Carl Sagan in 1961. Writing in Science, Sagan suggested that it might be possible to seed the atmosphere of Venus with bacteria that were genetically modified to eat atmospheric carbon and produce organic molecules, thereby laying the groundwork for the transformation of the Venusian environment.
In the half century since Sagan’s landmark essay, dozens of other terraforming ideas have been developed. Most of these have focused on the Mars, which is generally considered to be the logical next step for our species’ expansion into the cosmos. In terms of terraforming, Mars presents almost the exact opposite technical challenges when compared to Venus. Whereas Venus has a thick, toxic atmosphere, crushing atmospheric pressure, and scorching surface temperatures, Mars’ atmosphere is almost non-existent and the surface is freezing.
In 1991, the planetary scientist Chris McKay and a few of his colleagues at NASA outlined a plan for terraforming Mars that basically involved liberating greenhouse gasses (i.e., water vapor and carbon dioxide) that were trapped in the Martian soil and polar ice caps. McKay and co suggested that if these greenhouses gasses were released into the Martian atmosphere, it would have a two-fold effect. Not only would the greenhouse gasses increase the atmospheric pressure on Mars (which is currently at around 6 millibar, or a mere 0.6% of the atmospheric pressure on Earth’s surface), but it would also cause the planet’s temperatures to rise so that liquid water could exist on the surface.
Over the last three decades, the McKay plan has become the default solution to terraforming Mars. It even attracted the attention of the chief interplanetary colonialist Elon Musk, who suggested that Mars could be terraformed by dropping thermonuclear warheads on the planet’s ice caps back in 2015.
There’s just one problem: Mars doesn’t have enough greenhouse gasses to make it habitable.
On Tuesday, a NASA-funded report was published in Nature Astronomy that suggested that terraforming Mars is likely impossible, even with unfathomable advances in technology. According to the report, which is based on 20 years of observational data, even if all the greenhouse gasses trapped deep in the Martian soil was liberated and the ice caps were vaporized, this would only increase the atmospheric pressure on the planet to about 7% of Earth. Furthermore, this would only raise surface temperatures by about 10 Kelvin, a far cry from the approximately 60 Kelvin increase needed for liquid water to exist on the Martian surface.
The easiest greenhouse gas to access is the water vapor trapped in the Martian ice caps. But according to the NASA study even if the ice caps were obliterated as Musk suggested, this would at best double the atmospheric pressure on the planet to 1.2% of the atmospheric pressure on Earth.
The bulk of Mars’ greenhouse gasses are in the form of carbon dioxide trapped in the soil and minerals buried deep beneath the Martian surface. Releasing this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would be incredibly energy intensive and would likely “ require processing a major fraction of the surface (analogous to regional- or planet-scale strip mining),” according to the authors of the study. Even if we did have the technology to strip mine the entire planet, however, the researchers conceded that there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough carbon dioxide on Mars to make terraforming the planet’s atmosphere possible.
A NEW MARTIAN TERRAFORMING PARADIGM
In light of this new research, the scientists at the Autonomous Space Agency Network have developed a novel Martian terraforming solution. This two-step proposal involves the total transfer of fossil-fuel extraction companies and their managerial staff to the surface of the Red Planet in conjunction with a carbon capture and export scheme implemented on Earth. Taking into account the current level of technological development and political trends on Earth, we believe that their proposal could realistically render the Red Planet habitable by the end of the century.
The citizens of Earth are just beginning to experience the fallout from human-driven climate change, the effects of which are expected to drastically intensify over the next century unless immediate action is taken to eliminate the causes. Anthropogenic climate change is by and large the product of burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which releases vasts amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Despite the growing awareness about the perils of human-driven climate change, very little action has been taken to mitigate its effects. This problem is particularly acute in the United States, where a significant portion of elected officials don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. This is particularly troubling because the United States is historically the largest contributor to the world’s carbon budget. To make matters worse, US President Donald Trump recently withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the closest thing the world has to an actionable plan to combat climate change.
It seems apparent to the authors that, given our excess of greenhouse gasses on Earth and the apparent need for additional sources of carbon dioxide on Mars, that it would be sensible to capture Earth’s greenhouse gasses and export them to Mars. This works in the best interests of both planets insofar as it provides a solution to climate change on Earth and atmospheric terraforming on Mars.
The technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions already exists and is rapidly advancing. Current technologies have demonstrated the ability to capture 90% of carbon dioxide emitted at electric power stations. However, its deployment on Earth has been stalled due to the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry and those organizations with the largest carbon footprint, who demand larger tax cuts for using the technology. Therefore, the first stage of the new Martian terraforming paradigm would involve a transporting the executive and managerial staff of every major company involved in the extraction and sale of fossil fuels to an outpost on the surface of Mars.
Once these titans of industry are comfortably situated on the Red Planet and no longer pose an obstacle to effective climate policy on Earth, the second phase of the terraforming schema — implementing carbon capture and storage on Earth — can begin. Given the massive amounts of carbon dioxide that will necessary to terraform the atmosphere of Mars and the time needed to travel from Earth to the Red Planet (~6 months), we estimate that it will take at least five decades to transport the requisite amount of greenhouse gasses from Earth to Mars. This assumes a weekly launch schedule with load lifting capabilities comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
In the meantime, the oil barons and coal kings will be able to put their expertise in ravaging the natural environment to good use on Mars. While carbon dioxide is being transferred across the vast expanse of space, the managerial strata of the fossil fuel industry can focus on developing the most efficient means to strip mine the entire planet. We don’t expect the idiosyncrasies of the Martian environment to prove too difficult since the Red Planet lacks any sort of regulatory apparatus, which is the main impediment to extraction industries on Earth. Given how quickly these industrialists managed to deplete non-renewable resources on Earth, the vastly smaller surface area of Mars, and the lack of any regulations to slow their progress, we calculated that they should be able to strip mine the entire planet for carbon dioxide within about four decades.
By the end of the century, we expect that the planet Mars should be able to support human life due to large infusions of off-planet greenhouse gasses. Furthermore, within the same time frame Earth should begin to exhibit features indicative of social and ecological recovery. We expect to see a decline in the acidity of the oceans, a surge in biodiversity, and a decrease in geopolitical tension due to the lack of competing interests for scarce energy resources such as crude oil. This is merely a preliminary study to explore an alternative Martian terraforming paradigm. Further research will be necessary to settle interplanetary transportation protocols, Martian habitat design, carbon storage best practices, and similar pragmatic concerns.
This research was supported by the Autonomous Space Agency Network. To learn more, visit www.asan.space
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