Our ancestors began a chain of events that will almost certainly result in humans walking on Martian soil the moment we emerged from our caves and gazed up at the night sky with interest and curiosity. And, if you believe the present buzz, that day may arrive in the next two decades.
NASA has promised to put a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s.
Is Elon Musk correct in claiming that we must achieve a “multiplanet species” as soon as possible? We may only speculate about what such a accomplishment would entail for humanity. Is it critical to our future that we become a “multiplanet species” as quickly as possible?
Make humanity a multiplanet species!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 6, 2021
What exactly does it imply to terraform a planet? How do we transform a barren, rocky planet that resembles Antarctica and convert it into a destination where people would want to raise their children?
The solution is straightforward: terraforming. We use science and technology to figure out how to make Mars more Earth-like.
Of course, we do not have the technology to terraform planets as a species. If we did, we could utilize it to prevent our own civilizations from crumbling due to man-made climate change.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that one day we manage to figure out how to terraform Earth. What would such an endeavor entail?
According to a team of NASA, RAL space lab, and Princeton researchers, the first steps would be to stabilize the red planet’s magnetic field. The following is from the paper:
The Earth’s magnetosphere helps protect the planet from the potential sterilizing effects of cosmic rays and also helps retain the atmosphere, which would otherwise by stripped by large solar storms as they pass over the planet.
Mars does have small patches of remnant surface magnetic field, but these are localized in the southern hemisphere and are not of sufficient size or magnitude to protect the planet or a colony.
The major concept, then, would be to create a magnetosphere like Earth’s in order to start the atmosphere off. But as Brian Koberlein of Universe Today points out, this is easier said than done:
Unfortunately, we can’t just recreate Earth’s magnetic field on Mars. Our field is generated by a dynamo effect in Earth’s core, where the convection of iron alloys generates Earth’s geomagnetic field. The interior of Mars is smaller and cooler, and we can’t simply “start it up” to create a magnetic dynamo.
The paper continues, saying that one potential replacement may be to build a magnetic particle generator on one of Mars’ moons and charge the planet from the outside in.
It’s a little more complicated than that, but the idea is that the magnetosphere would form around the planet and ultimately lead to a sustainable biosphere. You’d have breathable air, water, and protection from deadly radiation, all for the price of $1 billion.
Within a few generations, it’s entirely conceivable that flora and fauna would flourish on Mars. And it should go without saying that such an ecosystem should be able to sustain human life.
This has some far-reaching theoretical consequences. There is currently a scientific consensus that humans have not found definitive proof of extra-terrestrial intelligent life.
Even if we don’t find alien life in our lifetime, other life may exist on distant planets by the year 2500. What if Mars’ unique conditions produce customized flora and animals by the year 2500?
We may have spread the first known seeds of life beyond Earth, and perhaps established proof for our species as the progenitors of intelligent life in the cosmos.
In the end, if we can terraform Mars, there’s nothing preventing us from doing it to other planets. In fact, the technology being used to solve the magnetosphere problem might have a wide range of applications beyond making planets habitable.
According to the paper:
Whilst the ideas presented here are at the scale of a planet like Mars, the principles are equally applicable to smaller scale unmagnetized objects like manned spacecraft, space stations or moon bases, creating protective ‘mini-magnetospheres’.
This invention may revolutionize space travel both now and in future eras. It could even be used to inexpensively send people into deep space with tiny nuclear-powered boats known as “craft-sized magnetospheres.”
The researchers do emphasize, however, that this research is not intended to support the need for such technologies, but rather to offer a discussion point about possible applications and engineering challenges.
It’s unlikely we’ll be able to grow tomatoes on Mars in our lifetimes. But it’s never too early to daydream about how we’d get from where we are now to eating Martian marinara sauce.
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