Mars: Getting the Air Back

In response to my post trumpeting the news of even yet still more evidence that liquid water existed (and persisted) on Mars, John Venlet commented:

I appreciate your enthusiasm for the pronouncements of past conditions on Mars. Based on the data you mention, and your statement "...could be again...," knowing what we know about the development of the Earth's atmosphere:

(1) over how long a time, realistically how soon could Mars' atmosphere be made hospitable to human life?

(2) Can a human life supporting atmosphere be developed on Mars based on its current orbit around the Sun?

I'm not an astrophysicist, or a physicist of any stripe (I've trained in Molecular Biology, but I don't think that helps here...), but I've been reading a lot on the subject, and so I'll give some non-expert answers based on what I've seen:

The Short Answers:

(1) Ultimately, "it depends", but according to Zubrin & McKay, a 100 mbar atmosphere (just from regolith outgassing) would take 25 years, once 5K worth of heat forcing was in place (a 5K global heat rise). For comparison, the atmospheric pressure of the peak of Mt. Everest is 300 mbar. (Earth sea level is 1000 mbar, or 1 bar). 100 mbar is not "shirtsleeves" pressure, but its not space-suit level either. Flight suits with oxygen masks would be enough to survive. The biggest problem of LEO and the Moon is vacuum (beyond heat and radiation). Within 100 years, a Mt. Everest level of pressure could be reached at the datum. Being that a great deal of Mars is significantly below the datum, such pressures could be achieved much sooner. Ultimately, the more energy is put into the Martian system, the faster climate change will go, and heating, once underway, will tend to be reinforcing. A breathable atmosphere is not in the cards for centuries, assuming that we make no technological progress from now on, but a reasonably thick and warm atmosphere to walk around in with (say) scuba gear on is doable.

(2) Yes. If people can live in Russia, people can live on a terraformed Mars, though I imagine for a long time it would be a case of "European Russia at the equator, Upper Siberia elsewhere." A Martian atmosphere of 300+ mbar would tend to be stable on human civilizational time-scales-- that is, the poles would no longer be cold enough to precipitate out carbon dioxide, and the atmosphere would not degrade on any timescale short of 100?s of thousands of years. An abiotic-yet-engineered Mars (barring significant changes in the sun) would not be stable in geologic time and would eventually crash back to a 6 mbar cold and icy state. However, if people are living on Mars, all bets are off.

The long answer:

The primary problems of terraforming an atmosphere on Mars are to raise the temperature of the globe, and to find the volatiles with which to increase atmospheric pressure. The main assumptions in most Mars terraforming texts are that one liberates the dry ice at the poles through forced heating, and the thicker atmosphere then traps more solar heat, which causes adsorbed CO2 to release from the ground, further thickening the atmosphere in a virtuous cycle.

Mars' atmosphere is currently 95% carbon dioxide. The temperature at the poles gets so cold that the atmosphere literally freezes out on the winter side at the same time that it is thawing out on the summer side, powering the tremendous winds. I have read that approximately 30% of the Martian atmosphere freezes out each winter. Terraforming will thus have to begin with warming the poles (I say). Zubrin proposes (among two other main options) using an orbital mirror to raise the temperature of the south pole (the colder of the two, and presumably the one with more CO2) by 5K, which would apparently shift the temperature of the pole above the vapor pressure of CO2. This shift would cause CO2 to melt (eventually to completion) and enter the atmosphere, which would lead to self-accelerating processes globally in a domino effect, with an equilibrium atmosphere between 300 mbar to 800 mbar (assuming a temperature of desorption of 25K). I like the straightforwardness of Zubrin's theory, but I think that he's a little too sanguine about the nature of the Martian system. A criticism of Keynes in the economic realm was that before one can explain how the market fails (or breaks down), one must first explain how the market works. Keynes began with the assumption that markets break down and generally don?t work, and then built his theory around that assumption. He turned out to be wrong in general and in the specifics. I think Zubrin, at least in the presentation of the theory, also begins with the assumption that Mars really wants to be warm and wet, but just can?t quite get over the hump- but if that were the case, why exactly didn?t something that hit randomly and raised global temperatures a great deal for a short while (like, say, one of Zubrin?s proposed supermassive ammonia asteroids) also kick start Mars into a thick atmosphere period? In other words, in explaining how Mars could work, he needs to explain why it doesn?t work now.

Digressing slightly to explain the point, one of the theories to explain Mars, its features, and its current state is that it cooled off quickly, and because the internal core dynamo shut down, volcanism wasn?t active enough to replenish atmosphere lost to the solar wind (no dynamo = magnetic field = no solar windshield, so to speak). The loss of the ancient atmosphere caused Mars to become a cold, icy ball, with the remaining air coming from sublimation and radioactive decay, maintaining a tenuous equilibrium. Then, around 3.5 billion years ago the inner planets were subjected to a massive bombardment of huge asteroid bodies, and Mars was hit by 35 100+ km-wide asteroids during this heavy bombardment. Such impacts would volatilize the water ice and CO2 locked underground, rain down molten rock and ash globally, and thicken the atmosphere to a point where for at least decades or centuries, massive rainfall would occur around the globe. This continued until the atmosphere cooled off, the water froze, and the poles froze out the remaining CO2. Thus the equilibrium state of 6 mbar would be restored, until the process began anew with the next mega-impact. This theory is advanced to explain the ubiquitous nature of water erosion signs with the lack of massive erosion (Mars still looks heavily cratered despite the outflow channels and tributary streams, etc).

Therefore, at least in the past, there was a strong push toward the current state of Mars, regardless of impact or temporary thickening of the atmosphere. The theory could also be wrong- there is no ?grand unified theory? of Mars? history and background, and there likely won?t be until we get some boots on the ground and start long-term study.

Additionally, people have pointed out that the equilibrium pressure of Mars is suspiciously equal to the triple-point of water; liquid water cannot exist at all, at any temperature, at Mars' current pressure. Water simply goes from solid to vapor and back again. The thin Martian atmosphere is indeed saturated with water vapor, meager as that may be- water frost appeared daily on rocks around Pathfinder, and sublimed away shortly after first light. This suggests that the pressure on Mars may be self-limiting under normal circumstances-- for if the pressure increases, liquid water can form, and carbon dioxide sequestration can begin through carbonate rock formation. This is a neat theory that runs into the problem of most liquid water models- where are the carbonate rocks? None have been detected from orbit. However, since a great deal of the northern hemisphere's lowlands seem to be water ice by volume (as well as a great deal of the southern highlands) just under the surface, this water ice may act as a buffer against initial thickening of the CO2 atmosphere when it melts.

With such a buffer, Zubrin's theory runs into some trouble, but not too much- his calculations include estimates for equilibrium pressures if the temperature/energy required to desorb CO2 from regolith are high, which in my view could be a reasonable stand-in for carbon sequestration drawing down newly liberated CO2 in the atmosphere. In the worst case scenario (the buffering action is quick), simply raising the pole temperatures will probably not cause an immediate global runaway effect, and other measures would have to occur at the same time (such as mass production of super-greenhouse gases, like perfluorocarbons).

Another problem is whether there is enough CO2 locked in the ice caps to provide much of an initial boost to the atmosphere in the first place. Most assumptions have been that the southern polar ice cap is mainly CO2, and that both poles have anywhere from 50 mbar to 100 mbar of CO2 between them to be released (a ?Rich Mars? scenario). If the pole caps turn out to be mostly water ice, and the Martian soils are saturated with potentially buffering water ice, then the initial increase of the atmosphere due to CO2 will be small. Assuming that the figure I mentioned above regarding the ice caps and the current atmosphere is correct (and they have only 30% of the current amount of atmospheric CO2), then completely vaporizing the cap reserves would only increase the pressure to about 10 mbar. If this is coupled with the worst case scenario of low (or no!) net degassing of CO2 due to carbonate formation, this would seem to put the terraforming project in a dead end. Ten mbar is scarcely better than six, right?

However, even if heating the pole causes the pressure to rise just a bit on net (with CO2 being sequestered shortly afterward), the Martian atmosphere will still be able to trap more heat and warm up- because more water vapor can be held by the relatively thicker air. Water vapor is a much greater greenhouse gas than CO2, and anything allowing for more water vapor in the air will add heat-trapping ability beyond what would be lost from CO2 to a buffer process. (Ironically, CO2 is a lightweight compared to the heat trapping capabilities of H20, CH4, or CFCs/PFCs.) Liquid water on the surface would also help moderate temperatures, which in a global warming environment would also speed the temperature/pressure increase.

I think Zubrin is generally right, but it is worth noting that the Martian system has been in the icy, almost airless equilibrium for millions of years and probably has many things pushing it in that direction. It could be that Zubrin is right, and that Mars *would* have a thicker atmosphere if it just received a slight bit more energy. Perhaps the real limiting factor is simply how much heat energy is added to the system (or retained in it), and that 3.5 billion years ago the sun?s heat was less, which is why even transiently thicker and warmer/wetter periods on Mars collapsed back to cold, thin, and icy.

Of course, a serious terraforming project would both heat the poles and pump high-powered greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making a lot of this moot. It may be such that, for volume/pressure's sake, water would be hydrolyzed and the oxygen fraction released, if outgassing was catastrophically slow (Oxygen, in any case, will not freeze out of the Martian atmosphere even at the coldest temperatures recorded at the poles). In any case, adding in greenhouse gases and heating the poles would be enough to allow water vapor and liquid to start working their positive magic. Liquid water will evaporate, and higher temperatures at lower pressures will cause ice to sublime into water vapor, further thickening the atmosphere. There's also no need to stop at one mirror; its just that one mirror would do to kick off the process. A second, third, or nth number of mirrors could be put up to further add heat to the system (depending on cost).

Thus, through either a "rich Mars" scenario where the ice caps have a 100 mbar supply of CO2 and the regolith can add another 100mb of CO2 in a few decades, or a "poor Mars" scenario where the ice caps are mostly water ice and severe carbonate buffering initially yields only a tiny net increase in pressure, the end result will be the same- a thicker atmosphere getting steadily and increasingly warmer.

A thicker atmosphere, of course, means more UV/radiation protection (thickness plus the formation of a robust ozone layer from CO2 degradation at high altitude) and less need for shielding and heavy construction for habitation/housing for the colonists working the project.

Once the pole temperatures no longer get cold enough to freeze CO2, I believe the atmosphere will be generally stable- CO2 will stay airborne year round, maintaining the greenhouse blanket. From what I read 300 mbar seems to be the magic number. At that point, the atmospheric system would maintain at a greater-than-Everest equilibrium, even without addition of other volatiles (such as nitrogen). The amount of atmosphere blown off by the solar wind is inconsequential in human time scales (its on geologic time scales that you have to worry). If a biosphere is added to the mix, then it gets even more stable, and self-regulating. If future technology can somehow get Mars' interior to churn again or otherwise add a magnetosphere, then Mars' atmosphere would last on geologic time scales. So long as there is a technological civilization on the planet, it will remain habitable.

Share this

Brian - You have done a bit

Brian -

You have done a bit of reading. In reviewing your post, though there are theories to terraform Mars, I remain very skeptical of success in the challenges presented with terraforming a planet. When I consider the success rate of meteorologists in predicting weather here on earth and the capriciousness of weather systems themselves, so many variables, how will man attempt to control the unknown variables that would be encountered in the cosmos surrounding Mars?

It is laudable that we as men can consider conquering Mars for human use, but I still think the realities will get in the way. The reality that most impedes men's vision for Mars is the exorbitant expense. Only via coercive taxation can a vision for Mars be executed. I do not think that would be a just/fair way for it to be executed.

Thanks for all the additional info and links imbedded in this post. It's a beautiful thing that men can even consider these challenges as possible, isn't it?

John: Only via coercive

John: Only via coercive taxation can a vision for Mars be executed.

With today's technology and economy, you are absolutely correct. Costs are certainly prohibitive to the degree that taxation is the only method of raising enough revenue to consider such undertakings. However, I believe we are on the cusp of breakthroughs in energy and materials science that would make ideas like terraforming Mars much more feasible in economic terms. For instance, a space elevator built using nanomaterials would give us a 1000X reduction in the cost of putting things into space in the first place. Advances in energy collection and production, and the subsequent trade of that energy to developing nations (or power-strapped developed nations), would provide more capital than we can currently imagine. The Lunar Solar Power project is one such example, but even breakthroughs in earth-based solar/wind power collection or hydrogen-based engines would help in this regard.

I don't want to sound too optimistic here - the technological barriers are nothing to sneeze at - but we humans almost always tend to underestimate our ability to discover new methods and materials that allow us to do what was previously impossible. Only a little over one hundred years ago, people said we would never be able to fly in machines. Until just fifty years ago, traveling through space (for any amount of time at all) was a pipe dream. The things that seem far off today could very well be commonplace within three or four decades.

Brian: Thank you for the incredibly detailed post. It's nice to see a summation of the science behind the idea of terraforming Mars. The novel I'm writing that is partially set on Mars gets around this whole mess in a simple way - everything is underground. In the novel, political and economic circumstances on Earth haven't changed enough to allow large-scale terraforming projects to take place, so enterpreneurs have bribed their governments with huge sums of money to be allowed off-planet, and they have taken it upon themselves to set up mining colonies under the surface of Mars. It's worth noting that I started work on the novel several months before Opportunity and Spirit landed, so I'm holding to the vision of underground colonies on Mars even though I think terraforming Mars could be possible. I'd prefer to see the terraformed version than what I've imagined, of course, but what are you to do once you've created a whole world? Toss it out and start over? :-)

Well, from year to year,

Well, from year to year, Mars' atmospheric pressure varies from 20-30%, from outgassing at the pole to "other". Here is a case where its not a matter of Terrestrial weather prediction, but gross mass action principles. Worst case scenario in a polar heat forcing is a CO2 atmosphere that is 15x greater than it is now, which would by itself raise global temperatures by another 2K or so (if not more; I'm not a physicist so I don't know the equations I'd have to run).

None of that is on the order of magnitude of difficulty involved in predicting the chaotic systems of Terran weather, which has a huge thick atmosphere full of different elements interacting with a full-blown biosphere and hydrosphere.

The point with Mars is that the process is controllable. Add mass volatiles and the atmosphere thickens, which is the point. When the only variable is "thicker atmosphere" (which means higher temp & greater protection from space radiation, among other good things), the process becomes easier than if you're trying to "make it rain on Topeka, Kansas, on October 25th, 2008."

As for how to fund the whole thing, I think you're mistaken to assume that the only way to make it happen is by government action, but assuming that is so, I'm not sure that government sponsored work to help colonize Mars is any more unjust than, well, anything else that the state does (Imperialism abroad vs. Colonialism on Mars), and helping to "prime the pump" so to speak and make the initial bridge to Mars seems to me to be a much more laudable use of coerced funds than redistributive welfare. Even knowing full well that government projects are always more expensive and wasteful than private sector ones, it would still be an endeavor that would, in the end, make more money than it cost (whereas the Farm Bill really can't make that claim...).

OTOH, ala SpaceShip One, if enough "angels" from the private sector got together in a COlonization Consortium, they'd have the resources of a small government and would be able to fund the project without recourse to taxation- and would have incentive to "cash out" the colony through land sales and other capital-creation activities once things were on their way.

The real hump is just getting people there. Once there are 20-100 people on Mars, everyone starts to rethink why they want to stay on Earth vs. going to interact with the new Martians.

Jason: I agree with you that

Jason:

I agree with you that whether the atmo project looks pessimistic or optimistic, there is reason to colonize mars- and initial colonists will find it very handy to dig down into the ground to build- the soil will help with pressurization, as well as stop the incoming cosmic radiation, UV, etc, and help with temperature regulation...

It will be easier, ala Mars Direct, to have lots of surface habs just dropped onto the planet from Earth, but long-term colonists will quickly want to start digging to make permanent bases. Sort of the "tents before the log cabins" approach. And since it will take roughly a century for a non-suited EVA on Mars, Martian society will be underground for quite some time (save for the farms, which will be topside under tents to take advantage of the sunlight).

Technological advances in propulsion and materials science may indeed drop the current costs by orders of magnitude. I think developing a space-plane method of achieving LEO (doing away with the need to have most of your fuel pre-oxidized) will come before a space elevator. But having hundreds or thousands of the little guys being able to pop into orbit would reduce costs dramatically. Add on space-based ships with Nuclear Electric Propulsion and you can ship a shload to Mars relatively quick (depending on whether you're just going to slingshot the stuff onto the planet and fly back to Earth pronto, or slow down and orbit and then slowly drop the material down). NEP ships will drop the transit time to Mars also by an order of magnitude (I believe).

I have a question ? How come

I have a question ?

How come we don?t see people here on Earth rushing to ?colonize? Antarctica, or the Sahara desert? Both places are a lot more hospitable than Mars.

So if people don?t seem eager to rush off and live in Antarctica, or the Sahara, then what makes you believe there are droves and droves of nitwits eager to rush off and colonize Mars (or the Moon)?

I think you boys have seen one too many episodes of Star Trek.

Apples and Oranges. The

Apples and Oranges.

The reason people don't go to the Sahara, generally, is that there isn't water, its too hot, and most importantly there are other places close by that are nicer to live on. Of course, lots of people actually *do* live in the Sahara despite all that.

The reason people don't go to Antarctica to live is first and foremost, because states won't let people live there. People live in worse places than antarctica (Prudhoe Bay, pretty much all of the north coast of Russia). Inuit live on or near the poles (well within the arctic circle) and being that they don't leave or die, one has to assume they they can and want to live there.

But Antarctica isn't a primary spot to live on the Earth for the same reason that the Sahara isn't- there are other places on the planet that are nicer to live, so most people will want to live there.

Mars is a totally different planet, not simply a terrain subset that is otherwise identical to other such places on Earth. And you're right, Mars in its current state will not be a pleasant place for most people, and 99.9999% of people on Earth will not want to go to Mars, either at the beginning or when colonies are fully established. But just like with the Sahara and the Antarctic, people *will* go there, and unlike the Sahara and the Antarctic, Mars in general (owing to the fact that people don't already live there) can be grossly terraformed to make huge swaths of the planet more like Russia than Antarctica.

And Mars is *new*, different, farther away; all things that are pluses in the eyes of restless explorer/pioneer types who want to get away. Mars offers other sorts of benefits that, say, the Antarctic and Sahara do not- easier gravity well to escape, proximity to Jupiter and the Main Belt, opportunities for exobiology and areology (science), lower-gravity for specialized industry, etc etc.

Because, again, its a different planet.

You don't have to go if you don't want.

I think the biggest thing

I think the biggest thing that separates Mars from other inhospitable places on Earth is that there simply aren't any new economic opportunities to be had in the terrestrial places Serpent mentioned.

Should we ever manage to colonize off-world, I think the droves of idiots will be the ones who stay one Earth to use up all its resources and fight each other for scraps.

Brian Doss: The reason

Brian Doss: The reason people don't go to the Sahara, generally, is that there isn't water, its too hot, and most importantly there are other places close by that are nicer to live on.

Yes, but that was my point. Isn?t everything you just said also true about Mars 10x over?

Brian Doss: The reason people don't go to Antarctica to live is first and foremost, because states won't let people live there. People live in worse places than antarctica (Prudhoe Bay, pretty much all of the north coast of Russia). Inuit live on or near the poles (well within the arctic circle) and being that they don't leave or die, one has to assume they can and want to live there.

Alaska is the largest and also the least densely populated state.

Florida, on the other hand is one of the most densely populated states.

Alaska also has a lot of natural resources, and those resources are fairly easy to transport to where they are needed after you?ve harvested them.

Mars and the Moon are a lot less hospitable than Alaska. In fact, you can even walk outside in Alaska without an environment suit.

Brian Doss: But Antarctica isn't a primary spot to live on the Earth for the same reason that the Sahara isn't- there are other places on the planet that are nicer to live, so most people will want to live there.

I agree. Now watch how this works:

But MARS isn't a primary spot to live in the SOLAR SYSTEM for the same reason that the SUN isn't- there are other places in the SOLAR SYSTEM that are nicer to live (namely Earth), so most people will want to live there.

Brian Doss: Mars is a totally different planet, not simply a terrain subset that is otherwise identical to other such places on Earth. And you're right, Mars in its current state will not be a pleasant place for most people, and 99.9999% of people on Earth will not want to go to Mars, either at the beginning or when colonies are fully established. But just like with the Sahara and the Antarctic, people *will* go there, and unlike the Sahara and the Antarctic, Mars in general (owing to the fact that people don't already live there) can be grossly terraformed to make huge swaths of the planet more like Russia than Antarctica.

Who or Whom is going to:

1) have the resources and ability to terraform Mars?
2) have the technology (information) required to terraform Mars?
3) want to spend the resources terraforming Mars when they already have Siberia, or Alaska, or the Sahara, or the Gobi, right here on Earth already terraformed for them and much, much closer to the consumers?

Did you read Micha Ghertner?s post on ?Value? the other day? Without a supply of customers, all those ?resources? on Mars are pretty much valueless.

Brian Doss: And Mars is *new*, different, farther away; all things that are pluses in the eyes of restless explorer/pioneer types who want to get away. Mars offers other sorts of benefits that, say, the Antarctic and Sahara do not- easier gravity well to escape, proximity to Jupiter and the Main Belt, opportunities for exobiology and areology (science), lower-gravity for specialized industry, etc etc.

Because, again, its a different planet

I realize that for some individuals it can be very exciting, but if I may make an observation, I notice that you talk about going to Mars with the same enthusiasm that a Christian talks about the Afterlife.

Interesting rejoinder- I'll

Interesting rejoinder- I'll start from the bottom-up:

The Serpent: Who or Whom is going to:

1) have the resources and ability to terraform Mars?

The resources and ability to terraform Mars exist now, and have existed since the plan was proposed in the early 90s. In terms of marshalling the resources and abilities to undertake the process, as I said above, its either government expense or a consortium of private investors who'll have to do it.

2) have the technology (information) required to terraform Mars?

(1) The technology required exists today.
(2) The tacit information required for on-the-spot terraforming will be available to those who are on the spot- the colonists involved in the terraforming project.

3) [will] want to spend the resources terraforming Mars when they already have Siberia, or Alaska, or the Sahara, or the Gobi, right here on Earth already terraformed for them and much, much closer to the consumers?

Why would anyone want to spend the resources exploring and improving the New World, when they have Europe, Africa, or Asia already developed and known for them, and much, much closer to the consumers?

Well, for one- its a new place to live; fine, but that's the same for the inhospitable places you mentioned. The second is- Mars is far away. For precisely the reason you think people wouldn't want to go there is why people will want to go there. The third is a function of the second- people will be able to carve out a new (or newer) society out on Mars that they cannot create (or only with great difficulty create) on the desolate places of the Earth.

Fourthly, if you were reading Bill Cholenski, you'll know that every immigrant brings jobs with them. Every person living on Mars will need a variety of things done or made for them, and this will require using the resources nearby and importing the rest. The exports will be based on Martian comparative advantage, which I imagine will initially be limited to exporting scientific data. Where people are, markets are, and where people are, consumers are. People are both consumers and producers, simultaneously, though one must first produce before one can consume.

The Serpent: Now watch how this works:

But MARS isn't a primary spot to live in the SOLAR SYSTEM for the same reason that the SUN isn't- there are other places in the SOLAR SYSTEM that are nicer to live (namely Earth), so most people will want to live there.

Of course, that's true. Most people will want to live in the nicer spots. People also want to live anywhere they can. The key bit in both of our sentences is "most". Not all, but most. Meaning the rest fill in the spaces. And the nicer people make Mars, the more people will want to live there. QED.

The Serpent: Alaska is the largest and also the least densely populated state.

Florida, on the other hand is one of the most densely populated states.

Alaska also has a lot of natural resources, and those resources are fairly easy to transport to where they are needed after you?ve harvested them.

Mars and the Moon are a lot less hospitable than Alaska. In fact, you can even walk outside in Alaska without an environment suit.

In a 100 years, you can do the same on Mars. ;)

Again we're seeing the principle of "most people want to live where it is nice and easy", which doesn't really impact whether people will live on Mars (they will). It means that most people will not. Mars has the same mineral patrimony as Earth. The same technological civilization we have here can be had on Mars (with some extra benefits in some cases- low grav!). Most of the mineral resources on Mars will be useful to Martians, not as export to Earth (which has plenty). The main resources of Martians will be simply living on the cutting edge- being the living test bed for all new and extreme technologies. Martians will most likely want to try the first things that come out that will give them any edge against the environment. That will either bring them cash or free stuff, which is trade in any case.

And with all things, success breeds imitation. The more successful a Martian colony, the more people will want to go and try their hand at it, too.

The Serpent: I realize that for some individuals it can be very exciting, but if I may make an observation, I notice that you talk about going to Mars with the same enthusiasm that a Christian talks about the Afterlife.

Indeed! For me, Mars isn't just a neat idea, its essential to the maintenance of the enlightenment and free society. Without a frontier, we turn inwards and stagnate (see India or China prior to the forcible modernization at the hands of formerly backwards Europe). New, new, new. Colonizing Mars would be good for Mars (bringing life to a dead planet), good for the Martians (who'll get to make a new society and new lives), and good for Earth, who'll have the influx of new ideas and ways of living from the Martians. Its about giving our civilization objectivity, so to speak. Without a frontier to comment on developed society, the conversation back home gets dull...

Really, really excellent

Really, really excellent article, Brian. Thank you.

How come we don?t see people here on Earth rushing to ?colonize? Antarctica, or the Sahara desert? Both places are a lot more hospitable than Mars.

The prospect of starting a colony in the Sahara is unappealing. First, you would have to deal with the local governments, get permissions, buy the land, etc. Then, you would have the problem of comparative wealth. Your neighbors would generally be armed, and poorer than you. There would be problems of theft and banditry.

Then there are the problems associated with success. Governments tend to tax success, and try to regulate it. They interfere. Some members of the populace would squat nearby, begging, trying to do odd chores. If they had any success, more would come. Lots more.

Brian Doss made a good point earlier that some people will want to go to Mars simply to be farther away from the rest of us. I say that I want to go to get away from Government and poverty and the problems associated with success here on earth.

There is a whole wide world there without a single claim or law on it. Any fellow colonist would plainly see that with so much mars to be had, it is in everyone's interest to cooperate and trade.

Brian Doss: The resources

Brian Doss: The resources and ability to terraform Mars exist now, and have existed since the plan was proposed in the early 90s.

But isn?t that exactly the same thing we were told about building the space station?

I wouldn?t say that the space station has gone exactly according to plan.

Now you are talking about radically altering the surface conditions of an entire planet. Something that we have absolutely no experience with, and something that is arguably hundreds (if not thousands) of times more complex and energy intensive than building the space station.

Not to mention that we are building the space station in our own back yard (relatively speaking) whereas, on Mars we would be 50 million miles from home.

Also the Gravity of Mars is only 1/3 that of the Earth. What is the long term effect of this low gravity environment on the human body? And what about the risk from exposure to radiation, both on the trip to Mars, and once the colonists arrive there?

And what about the magnetic field? Since Mars does not have a molten iron core, it has no strong magnetic field like the Earth. As best I know there is no way you can artificially terraform a magnetic field. What are the ramifications of this to any potential colonists living on the surface?

And finally, since the current cost of lifting something into space is about $20,000/per pound, and (even with the X-prize) there is no sign that it is ever going to get much below $5,000 to $10,000/per pound any time in the foreseeable future how much material do you honestly believe could be transported to Mars?

Brian Doss: Most people will want to live in the nicer spots. People also want to live anywhere they can. The key bit in both of our sentences is "most". Not all, but most. Meaning the rest fill in the spaces. And the nicer people make Mars, the more people will want to live there. QED.

I would think that since you don?t have people rushing to live all by themselves in the middle of Siberia, or Alaska, or the remote regions of Canada, that it is likely you would have even less rushing to live on Mars.

Are there any surveys, polls, or statistics on this that you are aware of?

Mr. Doss I have another, somewhat unrelated question for you: Do you believe that intelligent life (?sentient? life) exists elsewhere in the universe?

Serpent: And finally, since

Serpent: And finally, since the current cost of lifting something into space is about $20,000/per pound, and (even with the X-prize) there is no sign that it is ever going to get much below $5,000 to $10,000/per pound any time in the foreseeable future how much material do you honestly believe could be transported to Mars?

The space elevator is a feasible, not-too-distant workaround for the extreme cost of taking anything into orbit. Estimates for the cost after the SE is built range from $10-100/lb.

Serpent: But isn?t that exactly the same thing we were told about building the space station?

So because one short-term space project went badly, a long-term space project based on totally different science will also go badly? I don't follow the logic here.

Serpent: Also the Gravity of Mars is only 1/3 that of the Earth. What is the long term effect of this low gravity environment on the human body? And what about the risk from exposure to radiation, both on the trip to Mars, and once the colonists arrive there?
And what about the magnetic field? Since Mars does not have a molten iron core, it has no strong magnetic field like the Earth. As best I know there is no way you can artificially terraform a magnetic field. What are the ramifications of this to any potential colonists living on the surface?

These are the most relevant question you've asked, and are certainly questions that need to be studied in-depth. The way I see it, though, science moves in unexpected directions at unexpected velocities - we've been able to map the entire human genome in just a few years, we've developed nanomaterials in a short time, and we've seen computers grow exponentially faster and more powerful year by year. There's no reason to believe we can't do the same in terms of radiation shielding and other such technologies; ergo, there's no reason to postpone planning for something we'll have the capacity to do tomorrow just because there may be health-related questions today.

Serpent - *I* want to go

Serpent -

*I* want to go live on Mars, that is all that matters (to me).

Why? Because I subjectively value living on Mars higher than the Sahara or Antartica or any other place on Earth.

Besides, where else can one see a blue and gray double planetary system in the skies?

Jason: The space elevator is

Jason: The space elevator is a feasible, not-too-distant workaround for the extreme cost of taking anything into orbit. Estimates for the cost after the SE is built range from $10-100/lb.

The ?Space Elevator? is a high is a highly speculative venture that would involve building a large carbon-nanotube fiber cable up to an asteroid locked in a geosynchronis orbit around the Earth. The technical challenges involved in building such a structure will make building the international space station seem like making a paper airplane by comparison.

1) How much practical experience do we have with carbon nano-fibers and the technology required to build a space elevator?
2) How many structures have humans built to date anywhere near the size or scope of the ?space elevator?? A 500 story building would be about 1 mile high. The space elevator needs to be at least 60 miles high ? right?
3) What do you estimate it would cost to build and how much time would it require?
4) given the amount of protests that low-grade nuclear material on rockets generate what do you believe will be the public reaction to the notion of attracting a large and potentially lethal asteroid into Earth orbit, and what are the ramifications if the ?space elevator? fails, collapses, or is targeted by terrorists after it is built?

Jason: [Space station delays an omen for Mars?] So because one short-term space project went badly, a long-term space project based on totally different science will also go badly? I don't follow the logic here.

The Logic is very simple. Given the history of the space program what makes you assume that terraforming Mars will be the simple prospect you and Mr. Doss assert? That seems totally contrary to the entire history of man?s experience in space.

Jason: These are the most relevant question you've asked, and are certainly questions that need to be studied in-depth. The way I see it, though, science moves in unexpected directions at unexpected velocities - we've been able to map the entire human genome in just a few years, we've developed nanomaterials in a short time, and we've seen computers grow exponentially faster and more powerful year by year. There's no reason to believe we can't do the same in terms of radiation shielding and other such technologies; ergo, there's no reason to postpone planning for something we'll have the capacity to do tomorrow just because there may be health-related questions today.

What are people suppose to use for fuel/energy on Mars? I?m pretty sure that there are no reserves of oil or natural gas on Mars, and given human civilizations widespread use of fossil fuels as the basis for modern society here on Earth, I am wondering how martian society will get its energy? How much is a gallon of gasoline going to cost on Mars?

Or what about plastic? Will Mars have to import all of its plastic and raw materials from the Earth? How much is that going to cost? Do you know what is involved in smelting Iron, or my Goddess ? do you realize the energy (electricity) required to process aluminum?

Will the martians use solar power for all of their needs? Mars is a lot farther from the Sun, and it?s a lot dustier; besides we don?t really use solar power here on Earth that much where its 3 or 4 times more efficient.

If people don?t like solar power down here, what makes you believe they are going to be so eager to rush to Mars and use it?

I once heard a Russian Cosmonaut comment that the ?glamour of Space? aside, being on the Mir space station was analogous to being confined to prison. I?m wondering how many Individuals are really going to want to go to Mars given the harshness and reality of the situation?

Like I said, I think you are allowing a romanticized version of Space travel that you have seen in science fiction, distort your view of reality.

The power problem is easy:

The power problem is easy: Nuclear Power, dude. Mars has Uranium, so in the future fuel is not a problem.

Solar isn't much of an option for the reasons you stated (at least as a primary power source), but it would surely be used as a "get what energy ye can" option to help power up batteries and other small devices.

But the key to the whole enterprise (and I really think you should read "The Case for Mars" by Zubrin, who goes into detail about all of your questions), is making fuel/propellent in situ, on the ground, using a nuclear power plant to break down the Martian atmo to CO and O, and then perhaps reduce the CO to CH4, and voila! you have a combustible fuel (a "fossil" fuel) and oxygenate to run the thing. You can run vehicles off of a LOX/Methane engine, or even a hybrid engine (electric with a LOX/Methane motor/generator).

Plastics can be manufactured on Mars rather easily, too:

2CO + 4H2 --> C2H4 + 2H20

C2H4 is ethylene and is the backbone of the plastic industry. In the process of making propellant to leave the planet (in the initial stages of rotating crews), you can trivially add another step to make plastic precursors, and then siphon it off to a dedicated plastics factory (or manufacturing device, depending). The key to building the first permanent colony is to, ala Mars Direct, litter Mars with Habs and ERVs (earth return vehicles) that would use on-board nuclear reactors (don't have to be that powerful, either) to manufacture propellant, which can be used as fuel, precursors, etc. Once you essentially have dozens of gas factories on Mars (as a by-product of the ongoing manned study of the planet), you have an infrastructure for supporting a colony. If you piggy-back many of the colony-building devices on each individual Mars Direct shot, then after a period of a few years you'd already have all the capital on site to build a base. Huzzah!

And out of a population of 7 billion people, you can certainly find 100 willing to jump over to build a colony station. I'd be willing to go, and Dave. Right here in our small (albeit self-selected) sample, we have %2. ^_^ Ask the people in the astronautic community how many would like to go? How about submariners, who already live like astronauts (cooped up in a windowless environment for days, weeks, months... with the prospect of insta-death or worse always lurking around the corner)? Really, I have a hard time thinking that we can't find people willing to go through the hard slog of floating through space to Mars who'd be qualified to do so.

Brian - Don't forget wind

Brian - Don't forget wind power. There are no birds to get caught in turbines on Mars, and no Democrats to whine about them getting caught either. :-)

Serpent: Given the history of the space program what makes you assume that terraforming Mars will be the simple prospect you and Mr. Doss assert?

Perhaps you skipped the part where I said the technological barriers were nothing to sneeze at? I never said it would be simple. You continually stuff my mouth with your words, Serpent. The costs and advances necessary are also nothing to sneeze at. However - "if you will it, it is no dream." One more hint: when I say near-future, I mean within (roughly) 150 years.

Serpent: Like I said, I think you are allowing a romanticized version of Space travel that you have seen in science fiction, distort your view of reality.

This is very easily the most condescending thing I've ever read from you. You act as if we are saying we're going to build rocketships in our backyards and blast off from our treehouses because we read about it in Amazing Science Fiction. Come on! The impression of yourself that you project is that because you wouldn't want to go to Mars, you think that anyone who would ever entertain the notion themselves is walking around in Spock ears. If this is the tone you are going to take, I'd won't be discussing any space-related issues with you anymore.

Hey Brian, 1) As I

Hey Brian,

1) As I understand it, when a solar system forms the gravity of the sun tends to pull the heavier elements to the interior planets of the system. Thus you get a lot more heavy metals (i.e. industrial metals) concentrated in the interior planets, and far less concentrated on the exterior planets. So for example in our solar system you have Mercury with the highest concentrations of iron, uranium, gold, platinum, etc. while the outer planets, like Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, etc. are made with much higher concentrations of lighter elements like helium and hydrogen.
Aren?t the concentrations and densities of heavy/industrial metals (like the uranium you mentioned) far, far lower than they are here on Earth, and isn?t that going to make mining on Mars significantly more difficult and expensive?

2) I showed your post to a few people I know, and none of them were familiar with the process you refer to for producing plastics. I was under the impression that most plastics on Earth used fossil fuels as a raw material? How many plastics manufacturers are currently producing plastics on an industrial scale using the method you mentioned?

3) You mention using nuclear reactors as the primary source of power on Mars, and hint that nuclear power could also be used to refine metals such as iron or aluminum. Could you tell me how many nuclear powered iron mills or aluminum refineries currently exist on Earth, and if this method is deemed uneconomical on the Earth, what makes you believe it would be profitable on Mars?

4) You mention a colony size of 100 people. Given our experience with the cost involved in landing 12 Men on the Moon for an extremely short duration what do you suspect/estimate would be the cost of landing 100 men on Mars with enough supplies to last them 1 year?

5) Assuming that all 100 of the colonists are dedicated solely to uranium mining how much uranium do you suspect they could mine compared to what 100 men could mine here on Earth? Will 100 men be able to mine enough uranium to keep the colony self sufficient?

6) You mention breaking down the Martian atmosphere to use as fuel. What raw materials are required for this process? Can they be renewed on Mars, or must the raw materials be imported from Earth? Can you produce enough fuel to sustain a colony of the size you mention (an industrial colony)? If this process is so efficient, and it works so well, then why isn?t it used by industry currently here on Earth?

7) What would be the basis for a Martian economy (what product or raw material)? Will the Martians trade with Earth? Can that possibly be profitable?

8) I asked you the other day about the long term effects of low gravity on the colonist? As I understand it, long term exposure causes to this kind of environment causes long term bone loss. What are the potential long term health effects to the colonists, and how will this effect productivity of the colony? Do you believe individuals will still be as eager to live on Mars if there life expectancy is significantly reduced as a result?

9) Do you currently run a business, and if so, would you relocate that business to Mars, and if so, what would be your economic incentive for doing so?

10) How many such nuclear powered ships do you estimate you would need to send to Mars? Given the amount of protest that previous launches of nuclear material into space have generated, and given the current failure rate for launching a vehicle into orbit (about 2%) what are the chances that the public would support such a plan, and what are the chances of a catastrophic failure during the launch of a nuclear reactor into space? What is the potential loss of life resulting from such a catastrophic failure?

Terraforming Mars & its

Terraforming Mars & its atmostphere.

What we would need would be a gigantic ionizer
from shaper image. Give or take 20 of them at the size of each to be around the length of the sears tower and have each one designed to expunge a certain kind of gas orbiting the planet aimed towards the ground

These would be the most cost effective as there are nomoving parts and it's all really low tech stuff that we never thought of but should have thought of years ago.

1) How much practical

1) How much practical experience do we have with carbon nano-fibers and the technology required to build a space elevator?

Lots. The current issue now is manufacturing the carbon nanotubes longer than 1 or 2 cm. One source I read postulated using a carbon/epoxy mix of 98%/2% to create fibers of the needed length.

3) What do you estimate it would cost to build and how much time would it require?

About 10 billion dollars, and 15 years for the first one. (Another, earlier estimate was 40 billion in 10 years.) Subsequent elevators would be quicker and cheaper. See http://www.isr.us/SEConcept.asp?m=2

4) given the amount of protests that low-grade nuclear material on rockets generate what do you believe will be the public reaction to the notion of attracting a large and potentially lethal asteroid into Earth orbit, and what are the ramifications if the ?space elevator? fails, collapses, or is targeted by terrorists after it is built?

All these were covered in a report on space elevators done by NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). Asteroids are unnecessary.

From http://www.isr.us/SEConcept.asp?m=2 : "Initially, a small, carbon-nanotube-composite ribbon (10 to 20 cm wide and microns thick) capable of supporting 990 kg payloads would be deployed from geosynchronous orbit using four rockets and a magnetoplasmadynamic upper stage. Climbers (230) are sent up the initial ribbon (one every 3 to 4 days) adding small ribbons alongside the first to increase its strength. After 2.3 years a ribbon capable of supporting 20,000 kg cargo climbers would be complete. The power for the construction and cargo climbers (100kW to 2.4 MW) is beamed up using a free-electron laser (840 nm) and 13 m diameter segmented dish with adaptive optics, identical to the one being constructed by Compower Inc. and received by GaAs photocells (80% overall efficiency at this wavelength) on the climber's underside. This power, converted to electricity, would be used by conventional, niobium-magnet DC electric motors and a set of rollers to pull the climbers up the ribbon at speeds up to 200 km/hr. "

From what I've read, this design for a carbon ribbon, if it come down, will flutter down like newspaper.

Another article on on-going space elevator efforts:
http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/space_elevator_020327-1.html

=================

2) ...I was under the impression that most plastics on Earth used fossil fuels as a raw material?

Depends. Casein plastic can be made from milk, at room temperature. Which is not to say you can build lots of things out of it besides buttons....

10) ... Given the amount of protest that previous launches of nuclear material into space have generated, and given the current failure rate for launching a vehicle into orbit (about 2%) what are the chances that the public would support such a plan, and what are the chances of a catastrophic failure during the launch of a nuclear reactor into space?

Check out http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/prometheus_tech_030423.html -- NASA's proposed project Prometheus: ".....But the major poster child for Prometheus is the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, or simply known as JIMO in acronym officialdom. Prometheus calls for fission power reactor research, advanced heat-to-power conversion hardware, as well as power management and distribution equipment. Mastery of this technology is embodied in JIMO -- a mission with a wished-for launch in 2011, at the earliest. The spacecraft would orbit three different moons of Jupiter where earlier spacecraft discovered evidence for vast saltwater oceans hidden beneath icy surface layers: Europa, Ganymede and Callisto....."

Nuclear spacecraft are in the works.

Dunno about the feasibility of mining uranium on Mars.

However, wanderlust aside, I think the main argument for getting a self-sustainable population on Mars is to spread humans as far and wide as possible to lessen the risk that something big -- war, asteroid, disease -- will wipe us all out.

Consider: current theories

Consider: current theories indicate a large role for the methane stored in continental shelves that release periodically (?) and like swamp gas can ignite spontaneously before dispersal into the atmosphere thereby degrading into carbon dioxide. See: www.permianextinction.com Also there is a lack of helium. And the possibility of coronal mass ejections becoming involved in the electromagnetic field of the earth. Mars water--interesting possibilities.