Why terraforming Mars is only real in video games

Contributed by
Jun 18, 2017, 6:59 PM EDT (Updated)

Mass Effect: Andromeda blasts you off on missions to uninhabitable planets so you can thaw a freezing climate, replace a vanishing atmosphere, purify poisonous water and otherwise modify them for Earthlings using alien technology. Could this virtual reality actually become reality?

Mars has been the terraforming dream of both wishful scientists and sci-fi lovers everywhere because of its vicinity to Earth and research supporting an ancient water supply. It seems logical to believe that if we could somehow turn up the proverbial thermostat, we could make the Red Planet more like our planet—but MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky doubts we can give the hostile climate of Mars a makeover.

If we knew enough about climate to control the Mars climate, we also could control the Earth’s climate and either keep from mucking it up in the first place, or repair it after we’ve damaged it," Jakosy said as a reality check. He has a point. We keep thinking of terraforming as some sort of panacea that would theoretically give humans a backup planet after giving Earth a beating, but we haven’t even figured out how to reverse global warming yet.

While Mars once had a carbon dioxide atmosphere thick enough to trap heat and moisture (read: water necessary for life as we know it on Earth), that is now all but completely lost in space. CO2 was obliterated in such staggering amounts that there is no source vast enough to replace it. While gas now escapes at an extremely low rate, trace amounts left in minerals and polar ice are hardly enough to undo the damage. Even the CO2 issuing from volcanoes is nowhere near restoring what was violently stripped away by solar wind and radiation.

Curiosity self-portrait on the Martian surface.

Without enough carbon dioxide, there cannot be any carbon-based life forms, and liquid water and the life that would potentially flourish around it as it does on Earth cannot exist. Absence of an atmosphere exposed the Martian landscape to killer radiation from the sun that turned it into a barren red desert.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft has been monitoring what remains of that atmosphere to measure the rate of atmospheric erosion. MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer has been used along with measurements from the Curiosity rover to illustrate an atmosphere that is now all but nonexistent. Observations of argon isotopes have furthered scientists’ understanding of the disappearing atmosphere. Argon ions can only be removed from the atmosphere by sputtering, the process by which solar wind picks up electrically charged particles, some of which shoot into the atmosphere and knock molecules—including CO2—into space.

Terraforming might be more fiction than science, but don’t let that stop you from playing Mass Effect.



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