What Is Terraforming?
Terraforming is a term first popularly coined by a science fiction novelist named Jack Williamson in his 1942 novel “Astounding Science Fiction.” The concept involves engineering the atmosphere and surface of a planet, or moon, so that life can exist in an otherwise uninhabitable environment. It is most famously depicted in the second Star Trek movie, “The Wrath Of Khan,” as the Genesis project.
Scientists also refer to this hypothetical engineering, as Planetary Engineering. Terraforming is literally “earth forming.” Terrran life consists of any form of organism which is earth-like. Beginning in the 1960s, the popular scientist Carl Sagan first postulated plausible theories on how to terraform the planets Venus and Mars. Today a whole field of theoretical science exists centering on the topic of terraforming, and many articles dedicated to advances in this field are produced in international scientific journals yearly.
In addition to Mars and Venus, many scientists and engineers also entertain the concept of planetary engineering right here on earth. One popular project that has been explored is the planetary engineering of our deserts to make them inhabitable. Shimizu Corporation’s Desert Aqua-Net is one popularly discussed project. This futuristic project involves building a series of canals and lakes in the Sahara Desert. The canals run water from the oceans to the lakes, and each of the lakes has a man-made island at its center.
A similar project has been explored by Leonard Ornstein, Igor Aleinov, and David Rind. This project involves building some 50 Amazon-sized rivers in the desserts of Africa and Australia for the purpose of populating the deserts with large forests of eucalyptus trees. The purpose of this ambitious project would be to produce vast CO2 sinks, i.e. the eucalyptus forests, that could effectively cool the planet and offset the production of CO2 caused by humans and the burning of fossil fuels.
The authors presuppose that man-made global warming will inevitably pose a serious problem on earth in the future. The authors postulate, that such an undertaking would require some 18,000 TW of energy for the ongoing water pumping and desalination of water to hydrate the forests. This amount of electricity is equivalent to the total amount of all forms of energy currently consumed in the world each year.
Why Is Terraforming Important to Our Future?
Scientists and futurists have long pondered the relative importance of terraforming to the future of mankind. To begin with, the very largest of the problems that mankind may face in the future helps to serve as the impetus for generating innovative ideas and plausible engineering solutions to a wide variety of man’s current dilemmas. A short list includes overpopulation, climate change, and energy shortages, as well as environmental and material resource problems. Just as science fiction has foretold advances, which are common place today (i.e. airplanes, lasers, hand held televisions, and space travel), serious exploration into the possibilities of extraterrestrial terraforming by futurists and scientists may one day morph into actual engineering solutions. This can only take place once technologies such as nuclear fusion and long-distance manned spaceflight come to fruition.
The exercise of “daring to boldly go where no man has gone before” also forces our minds to put mankind’s problems, and our place in this biosphere, into perspective. By earnestly seeking solutions on a planetary changing scale, we learn to appreciate that we are indeed interconnected integrally into the earth’s climate and environment, as well as its biological ecosystem.
Successfully terraforming the planet, Mars could ultimately help solve the problem of overpopulation, help to preserve our species, and could lead to new sources of minerals and energy. Moreover, the successful terraforming of Mars could lead to its replication on similar planets elsewhere in the galaxy.
Terraforming here on earth could also lead to engineered climate change and arable soil expansion, ease overpopulation, and lead to new sources of food and renewable natural resources such as trees.
Technologies Need to Advance Terraforming on Mars
The challenges to terraforming the planet Mars is multi-fold. The temperature of the planet must be raised a minimum of 60+ degrees (depending on how hospitable you want the planet to be), and the atmosphere must be populated with enough CO2 or other green housing gases, such as halocarbons, to create a pressurized atmosphere of life-sustaining gas densities (i.e. an atmospheric barrier needed to pressurize oxygen). Finally, the planet’s atmosphere must be populated with enough breathable air and sufficient densities of oxygen, and a portion the planet will need to be populated with adequate quantities of accessible water.
Scientists estimate, based on 21st-century technology, that such a project would take about 1,000 years to complete if the appropriate amount of energy could be brought to bear. This would make the planet Mars fully inhabitable by humans in theory, but might not answer longer-term questions of stability and sustainability of the planet’s climate and environment needed to sustain a large colony of humans in perpetuity.
To accomplish such a project a number of approaches have been put forth by terraforming scientists. The frozen polar CO2 caps on Mars could be heated and liberate enough CO2 to sustain roughly 30% of earth’s atmosphere. Dispersing CFCs in high quantities could also contribute the green-housing of Mars, warming it further.
Another approach is to blast an ammonia-containing asteroid toward Mars, which upon impact would create enough energy to melt a trillion tons of frozen water, resulting in a warmer atmosphere, and would cover about a quarter of the surface of Mars with about 1 meter deep water. Additionally, nitrate beds could be targeted to produce nitrogen and further populate and pressurize the atmosphere of Mars. All told, about 40 such missions would be required to accomplish these tasks.
Another approach is to heat portions of the surface of Mars with giant orbiting mylar mirrors spanning 125 km in diameter. Some 200,000 tons of mylar would be required to build these solar mirrors, and they would have to be constructed in space, using power from nuclear reactors.
Regardless of the approach used to heat Mars, if 100 TW of energy could be generated on the surface of Mars each year, breathable levels of oxygen could be achieved in about 1,000 years.
Terraforming Our Future
All of these proposed ideas require the development of nuclear fusion power and long-distance manned spaceflight, involving large payloads and return flight capabilities. Quantum leap, breakthroughs in sources of energy, and interplanetary space travel will be necessary to bring us to the presepis of extraterrestrial planetary engineering. Well within the foreseeable future, however, terraforming significant portions of the earth’s deserts could be accomplished with a large enough influx from a yet undeveloped source of inexpensive, clean, and green energy needed to perform the ongoing water pumping and desalination of water and the industrial construction necessary to populate the deserts with sufficient navigable waterways. A solar farm roughly the size of Texas might just do the job.
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