- exploring, developing, & settling the red planet -


Many a space advocate envisions the final state of Mars to be completely terraformed where the Martian atmosphere has been thickened to Earth-like levels and where the CO2 has been converted to breathable O2. But there are a number of very large technical challenges to overcome and typically one calculates that it would take a very long time to achieve the goal.

Super Greenhouse Gasses:
Perhaps the most commonly cited approach to terraforming Mars is to set up factories which produce super greenhouse gasses. As the gasses heats up the Martian atmosphere, it thickens, and mostly being CO2, the thicker atmosphere would itself act to warm Mars.

The main challenges of this approach are three.
   1) There's some doubt as to whether there is enough CO2 bound up in the Martian dirt to adequately warm the planet.
   2) The end result is an atmosphere which is not breathable by humans unless further processed. But there would
   3) The time needed to complete this process is typically measured in the thousands of years.

Nuking the Poles:
Elon Musk jokes that there is the "fast way" of terraforming Mars. This would be to set off a series of thermonuclear bombs over the polar caps to melt them thereby releasing CO2 and hence increasing the thickness of the atmosphere thereby raising the temperature.

The main challenges of this approach include:
   - Producing and transporting that many nuclear bombs to Mars would be a considerable political challenge.
   - Some nuclear fallout would contaminate Mars which the settlers may not appreciate.
   - The sound waves of the explosions would be disruptive to settlers.
   - The end result would be an atmosphere that couldn't be breathed by humans without additional processing.

Importing Nitrogen:
Cometary and Kuiper belt objects could theoretically be diverted to Mars where they would smash into Mars thereby releasing their gasses and thickening the Martian air up to Earth level of pressure. Thee would still need to be further processing to make the new atmosphere breathable. However this approach would require technology and funding well beyond what we would expect to be available as settlers start to move to Mars.

All of the terraforming approaches have the downside of modifying the Martian environment to something potentially incompatible for any Martian microbes.

However, there is a simple solution to provide full Earth-like environments on Mars for settlers on Mars in the near term.

Paraterraforming essentially means making more and more greenhouses extending from settlements. If extended throughout the surface of Mars these greenhouses become what's referred to a worldhouse.

The big advantage is that the paraterrraforming approach could provide Earth-like environments immediately. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to expect that settlers would wait thousands of years until the entire planet had been terraformed before wanting to have some Earth-like, natural environments to walk around in. So paraterraforming will be done and with automation, probably done on a large scale.

The Martian atmosphere is about 95% CO2, 2% nitrogen, and 2% argon. Both nitrogen and argon are buffer gasses of great use for breathing and preventing fires on an environment with oxygen. So, by converting the CO2 into O2 (with algae or non-biologically) and separating out the N and Ar, one could produce breathable air with the following characteristics:
   - 1/2 atmospheres of pressure
   - 20% oxygen
   - 40% nitrogen
   - 40% argon.

If one does the calculations, then the entire surface of Mars could be transformed to this sort of air with a ceiling height of about 50 feet. But well before that, one could produce air within domes over numerous, very large settlements. In other words, it is possible to produce large Earth-like environments larger than what the settlers would need and to provide those environments as needed as the population grows. And these micro-environments would leave outdoor space for any native microbes.

But paraterraforming has its challenges. One would need to produce the material for the greenhouses. But the lica resources page describe how this could be done.

Another challenge would be how to deal with the punctures to the greenhouses from micrometeorites. For starters, some of the micrometeorites would burn up in Mars' thin but present atmosphere. Secondly, small punctures would lose air at a relatively slow rate giving people or automated robots ample time to make repairs. Sectioning the greenhouse would mean that a catastrophic rupture would affect only that section.

Paraterraforming offers a far faster approach to achieving Earth-like environments than traditional terraforming.

Join the Space
Development Network
Next Section