Ok think about Earth for a second. Inside the core there is lots of Uranium and Thorium which have long half lives and help keep the center of the Earth hot. All the metallic churning leads to a super wonderful magnetic field that protects the Earth from nasty radiation and solar winds that would otherwise blow away our atmosphere.
Think about the nice breathable air we enjoy with a just perfect surface pressure of 1000 millibars. Ponder the abundance of water and the nice balmy temperatures.
OK now lets think about Mars. Pretty much everything just mentioned is missing on Mars. That makes terraforming an extremely difficult proposition. Lets review.
THE DEAL BREAKER – NO MAGNETOSPHERE
The lack of a magnetosphere is really really bad on two fronts. First of all, there is the radiation. Without magnetic poles, the stuff just pours in, both from the sun and from space. This means that without localized protection (like an underground chamber, you are a walking dead man.)
Secondly, you have the problem of not only having no atmosphere now, you have the problem of the old one having been lost to space … blown away by the solar winds that just tear constantly at anything that tries to get in the atmosphere. Thus when you try to create an atmosphere, you probably won’t have much to work with as the original atmospheric gases are long gone. They are not in the soil. They are not hiding underground. They are gone like a million yesterdays. Gathering enough gas molecules to increase the atmospheric pressure by a factor of 100 … not happening.
MORE BAD NEWS – THE TEMPERATURE
Yes we are taking cold, really really nasty cold. Being on Mars during the summer months would be like being on ANTARTICA except there is no snow and Mars is colder. Temperatures on Mars range from a low of minus 100 F to a high of 70 F. That’s in summer … at the equator. At the poles, temperatures can get down to minus 195 F. There are no fossil fuels. All this means you will need electric heat and lots of it. And no, solar panels won’t cut it as anything other than a supplemental source of energy. The reason for this is that downtime would be deadly. No electricity and you get deadly cold. So nasty things like a dust storm or nightfall and you die. However this problem is solvable with LFTR nuclear reactors.
In a heavily insulated underground chamber, with two Thorium nuclear reactors (which don’t need water), you could probably have enough redundancy to eliminate the risk of a power outage. But I would really double check my calculations and engineering. Failure of the electrical systems to operate 100% of the time would be devastating. On Mars, power is going to mean life.
MORE BAD NEWS – SUPER LOW GRAVITY
There would seem to be nothing that can be done to increase the gravity of Mars (short of colliding say Ceres into the planet). Thus, we will quickly learn weather people can survive at 38% gravity for the long term. Over time, Martians would adapt genetically perhaps, but this is a major area of uncertainty for the early colonists. The wizard guesses that this problem will be able to be solved in the short run (with supplemental local gravity enhancers) and in the long term (with biological modified people.)
MORE BAD NEWS – AIR PRESSURE AND AIR CONTENT
Mars currently has about 1% of the atmospheric pressure of Earth. That means without an asteroid collision of methane or nitrogen or CO2, the planet will probably never have an atmosphere dense enough to allow human lungs to breath without a pressure system. Plus our atmosphere on Earth is roughly 70% nitrogen. This inactive gas is extremely valuable as it provides pressure without any chemical interactions with the body. Getting an adequate volume of inert gases doesn’t seem possible given what we know about the existing atmosphere and soil.
IS THERE HOPE?
Yes it should be possible to create an underground world (or surface world that is heavily insulated from radiation) that could sustain life. Water and air will be able to be created in enough volume to fill a sealed chamber and with adequate containment designs, the system could be pressurized to allow for free range (underground) humans. This is not “terraforming” as the process is commonly thought of however. But life could exist on Mars. The wizard predicts that this is how life will operate there … sealed in a chamber with just a few trips to the outside. Can you say cabin fever. But with the potential for underground farms and forests, lakes and rivers, one can imagine a place that is attractive and appealing. The key to such a world would be energy and that almost certainly means thorium reactors. Until such reactors are ready to be easily shipped, life on Mars will be extremely difficult. Terraforming on the other hand will be essentially impossible.
For a somewhat more optimistic view concerning terraforming Mars see the video below, Note carefully the clever explanation for getting a magnetosphere back on Mars. (OK they have no ideas whatsoever.) Great channel though.
IS THERE A BETTER WAY?
Yes, there is a better way and that is to terraform the people and not try to terraform the planet (the wizard has made this argument previously – see blog post HERE). Creatures built using nanobot technology with powerful batteries, recharged from energy sources that are extremely reliable should allow for cities and manufacturing centers to be built on the surface. “True Martians” built for the planet would be impervious to radiation, not need air or water and would be unaffected by the cold and the dust. The low gravity and limited atmospheric pressure might actually be positives for such creatures.
Scanning your brain and turning you into software that can be instantiated into a nanobot body would really be the way to see Mars. That would seem to be the future for colonizing the red planet.
The Wizard used to believe deeply that terraforming Mars was possible and it was just a matter of time before the technology to change Red Mars into Green Mars would exist. (See above for how easy the classical model for terraforming Mars was supposed to be.)
Now however, the Wizard is pretty sure that the lack of knowledge about how to create a magnetosphere is the real deal breaker for making Mars livable. It may turn out that life on Venus (living high above the planet at a perfect 1000 millibars of pressure) might actually be just as doable as living on Mars (see below for vision of life in the clouds of Venus). In any event, it seems likely that Man, or his manufactured descendants, will someday be living on both worlds. To your humble Wizard, it seems unlikely that either planet will ever resemble Earth however.
NEXT UP: Another look at living “on” Venus