• Post category:Space Exploration
  • Reading time:4 mins read

The term Terraforming was coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction short story (“Collision Orbit”). Terraforming or terraformation (literally, “Earth-shaping”) of a planet, moon, or other body is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography, or ecology to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life.

Within the Solar System, several possible locations exist that could be well-suited to terraforming. Consider the fact that besides Earth, Venus and Mars also lie within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). However, owing to Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere, their atmospheres are respectively too thick and hot, or too thin and cold, to sustain life as we know it. However, this could theoretically be altered through the right kind of ecological engineering.

An artist impression of Mars being terraformed.
An artist’s impression of Mars being terraformed.

The first step to attaining this end product involves the development of a stable, enduring ecosystem, a process known as ‘ecopoiesis’ (coined by Robert Haynes). Ecopoiesis alone would not be sufficient in creating an environment in which humans or animals could survive outdoors, however, which is why terraforming must be used in conjunction with the process of ecopoiesis in order to create a sustainable, Earth-like environment. In respect to the planet Mars, there are five explicit steps that must be carried out before the processes of ecopoiesis, and consequently, terraforming can be attempted/completed. The steps are as follows:

  1. A surface temperature increase of about 60 degrees
  2. An increase in atmospheric mass
  3. A supply of liquid water
  4. A reduction of UV and cosmic radiation
  5. An alteration to atmospheric composition to increase oxygen and nitrogen
Various sources of carbon dioxide on Mars and their estimated contribution to Martian atmospheric pressure.
Various sources of carbon dioxide on Mars and their estimated contribution to Martian atmospheric pressure.

Terraforming Mars would entail three major interlaced changes: building up the magnetosphere, building up the atmosphere, and raising the temperature. Because its atmosphere consists mainly of CO2, a known greenhouse gas, once Mars begins to heat, the CO2 may help to keep thermal energy near the surface. Moreover, as it heats, more CO2 should enter the atmosphere from the frozen reserves on the poles, enhancing the greenhouse effect. This means that the two processes of building the atmosphere and heating it would augment each other, favoring terraforming. However, it would be difficult to keep the atmosphere together because of the lack of a protective global magnetic field against erosion by the solar wind.

Magnetic shield on L1 orbit around Mars
Magnetic shield on L1 orbit around Mars

To protect Mars’s atmosphere, NASA scientist Jim Green proposed a concept of placing a magnetic dipole field between the planet and the Sun to protect it from high-energy solar particles. If constructed, the shield may allow the planet to restore its atmosphere. Simulations indicate that within years, the planet would be able to achieve half the atmospheric pressure of Earth. Without solar winds stripping away at the planet, frozen carbon dioxide at the ice caps on either pole would begin to sublimate (change from a solid into a gas) and warm the equator. Ice caps would begin to melt to form an ocean.

All these requirements and investments for creating an alternate home outside Earth may force the Earthians to first safeguard Earth itself. Such that Earth remains our primary home and not an alternate one.

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