Making Mars feel like home

Terraforming is a controversial concept but could make Mars more like Earth.
25 January 2017

Interview with 

Stephen Patranek, author of How We'll Live On Mars


Terraforming is a controversial concept but it could make Mars more like Earth, as Stephen Patranek explained to Graihagh Jackson...

Patrick - Terraforming Mars just means making Mars more like Earth. To make it more like Earth there’s a very simple problem on Mars. The atmosphere is not thick enough and it’s not breathable.

So if you were to make essentially a solar sail that was shiny on one side, it would work as a mirror. You can put it into what is called a ‘statite orbit’ around Mars and that means basically the Sun is trying to pull it away from Mars, but Mars’ gravity is trying to pull it towards Mars so it stays in one place. Then you point it at the south pole of Mars where there’s a lot of frozen carbon dioxide.

The frozen carbon dioxide is what I would call ‘not very frozen.’ In other words, ice at 32 degrees is just barely frozen. This carbon dioxide is barely frozen. You heat it up just a little with the Sun’s rays and it creates guess what…a runaway greenhouse effect on Mars - more and more CO2. As more and more CO2 enters the atmosphere and the atmosphere becomes thicker, frozen water on Mars will begin to melt, especially around the equator about 10 degrees about north latitude, 10 degrees south latitude - that band around Mars in the middle, the water will start melting.

It might freeze at night. It might be an atmosphere with an environment a lot like Canada where the water is not frozen during the day and some of it freezes at night. But when the water starts running freely on Mars and starts melting, water vapour will go into the atmosphere which will create even more of a greenhouse effect. You will get snow and you will get rain on Mars, just like we have on Earth.

The thicker atmosphere will allow sunlight, which is penetrating it not to leave and, therefore, you’ll have a heating effect on Mars, and it’ll just get warmer, and warmer, and warmer. As it gets warmer and as you get flowing water, you’ll be able to actually grow crops outdoors. Not genetically modified plants that we’re familiar with on Earth like corn and soy beans where we seem to plant everywhere. Genetically modifying those so they can take in pure CO2 is not a big problem. So suddenly you’ll be able to grow a food supply on Mars and you begin to get a very earth-like planet.

There’s a big problem which is a breathable atmosphere. That is a really tough problem to solve and that’s a thousand year problem.

Graihagh - A question here though for me is should we be doing that? Because what you’re talking about is actually climate changing when we are ruining our own planet through exactly this system. Should we be going to another planet and changing it beyond recognition?

Patrick - I understand and I’m very sympathetic to that argument. First of all, Mars is a dark, cold place. I do not believe there’s any life on Mars. We’re basically taking a rocket in space and to say that is crazy of us to try to make it more Earth-like is a crazy statement in and of itself. But here’s the big surprise… technology doesn’t move all by itself and get better all by itself - it needs motivation. What we learn on Mars about terraforming Mars is going to allow us to come on Earth to stop using our atmosphere and our water as ‘waste disposal systems,’ because on Mars, you will not be allowed to have any waste disposal at all. You will have to recycle everything all the time. The technologies we learn on Mars are going to make Earth a much better place much faster.

Graihagh - A hugely positive aspect of this mission. But would Stephen and Marek themselves go?

Stephen - I would, I’d go tomorrow. It would be the greatest adventure of a lifetime. Elon Musk is famous for saying “I want to die on Mars but not on impact,” and I agree with that. I wouldn’t mind dying on Mars. That would be a good place to go later in life… great last adventure.

Marek - I would be really happy to go and visit Mars. I would even go for a couple of years, but only if I could come back. The Earth is, I think, the most beautiful and amazing planet that we’ve discovered so far in the whole universe. Certainly, it’s the most beautiful planet in the solar system.I have not finished exploring it and I wouldn’t want to give up on the Earth. So yes, I would go to Mars for a trip but I would definitely want to come back afterwards.

But I think what’s really exciting about this showhome is, over the next weeks, we’re going to get loads of kids coming into the observatory. Hopefully, they’re going to get excited and inspired by this, and some of them may think about careers in science and technology. Those kids are exactly the right age now to be among the first people to travel to Mars in the 2030s. But, who knows, perhaps the first martian astronaut is going to be visiting us at Greenwich over the next week, and that is a really exciting thing.

Graihagh - Blimey it is indeed, isn’t it?

Graihagh - As the only person who really knows what it’s like to be so far from our home planet, I want to leave you with some rather illuminating thoughts from our astronaut, Stanley G Love.

Stanley - I have this memory of being finished with the space walk, waiting outside the airlock to come back in inside and out shuttle's orbit took us up over the pacific ocean and across the western part of the United States. And just having that immense tableau of the scenery of all the world that I’ve known growing up and that just comes rolling up underneath me as we were finishing that space walk and feeling good about it. That was a wonderful, wonderful experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Graihagh - It sounds beautiful.

Stanley - It is. I’d like to say, and this is a strong statement coming from somebody with a background in astronomy is that the Earth is the most interesting thing in space. So I’m hoping that, in the future, more and more people can see what it’s like to be in orbit, look down at the Earth and see what it really looks like, and observe our home as a planet rather than just as something you drive around to work and back every day. I think it will make us all better people to have that experience.


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