You never tell Elon Musk something is impossible, even if it really is scientifically impossible (for now).
Terraforming Mars is something that sounds much easier than it actually would be if we could only figure out the technology to make the sun-blasted Red Planet a livable environment for Earth organisms. It is theoretically possible if you release massive amounts of CO2 into what is left of the Martian atmosphere, but new research has determined there is no way that will be happening anytime soon. The Tesla and SpaceX mogul, however, isn’t having it.
Scientists Bruce Jakosky and Christopher Edwards used data from the NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission probe (MAVEN), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, along with ESA’s Mars Express Spacecraft, to figure out whether there is enough CO2 hiding in that scorched soil and polar ice caps to set off the greenhouse effect and warm up the planet once released.
“There is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be emplaced into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas in these reservoirs is not accessible and thus cannot be readily mobilized. As a result, we conclude that terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology,” Jakosky and Edwards said in a study recently published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first discovered carbonates on Mars in Nili Fossae, an area near a huge impact basin. CO2 was also discovered in the ice caps by MRO and Mars Odyssey. That isn’t the goldmine it may seem. Rocks found in the carbonate plains of Nili Fossae are too tough to extract much from. The technology we do have could only harvest enough of the gas for an increase of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which really wouldn’t make much of a difference on a planet with an average daytime temperature of -67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not that this is enough to bring Musk down. He obviously feels there is some way to extract all the CO2 lurking just beneath the Martian surface just by heating the planet enough. That includes potentially nuking its ice caps.
Mars used to have an atmosphere billions of years ago—until the charged particles in solar winds crashed into and bumped out lighter argon isotopes and additional molecules that shielded the upper atmosphere and kept certain gases in circulation at lower altitudes. In the absence of this shield, the atmosphere escaped into space.
Even with this study, the most accurate way to determine the CO2 content of the Martian surface will be sample-return missions possible with NASA’s Mars 2020 and ESA’s ExoMars probe, and technology is always being upgraded, so Musk’s tweet may turn out to be right in another decade.