Our Destiny in the Stars: The Reality Behind Terraforming

Our Destiny in the Stars: The Reality Behind Terraforming

The scientific principles behind terraforming are far more developed than you think, with a legacy stretching back over 50 years. So is the reality posited in Destiny realistic? Critical Intel takes you towards the truth.

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Question from the uninformed: What is terraforming? I always thought it was reshaping a planet other than Earth to more closely resemble Earth (in geography, climate, atmosphere, lifeforms, etc.). However, this bit,

If you're reading this, you're terraforming a planet. The energy your device consumes as you read, the car you drove to get where you are, and the air conditioning that cools you all release carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere. The atmospheric change from all this carbon dioxide, and the solar heat it traps, melts polar ice and raises the sea level. That's unintentional terraforming.

makes me think that Rath is using a different definition.

Anyways, interesting piece. I've not heard of the ethical objections to terraforming before, but I'm not really impressed by them. Yes, we probably will exterminate native microbial life (if it exists) and unnaturally modify Earth creatures to survive on different planets. Here on Earth, we call that, "curing diseases" and "selective breeding". Original microbes will probably be sampled and preserved by scientists, but if they don't evolve they will be left behind, either destroyed or ending up like other lifeforms that didn't keep changing or change fast enough, stuck in their own small niche.

Being able to create sustainable "world domes"/habitats means that you don't really need to terraform planets to colonize outer space, and in fact you might not want to except as a curiosity. Having a habitat in space rotating to simulate gravity means you can customize the internal climate to whatever your technology allows, and keep Earth standard gravity while you're at it (if that's what you desire). Even a terraformed Mars with a breathable atmosphere is going to be a different environment than Earth due to the gravity and thinner atmosphere alone, with Mars humans diverging from Earth humans if they remain largely separated gene pools.

Of course, that wouldn't be as much of a problem of Venus (it's only slighter smaller and less massive), and there are other reasons for terraforming Mars if you don't find life there to preserve and study. Terraforming the planet would be a fascinating experiment leading to a very different biosphere, since any Earth life introduced there would quickly diverge from its Earth counterparts. It's also one of the few space colonization movements that could possibly create a religious-political movement in its favor once it got underway.

Unfortunately, aside from Mars, the other planets and moons aren't that desirable as terraforming candidates. Venus is much closer in size and gravity to Earth, but it's also close enough to the Sun that any biosphere would be at major risk of getting into another runaway greenhouse effect situation unless you kept the planet dry with very limited surface water (except at the poles). The outer solar system moons aren't even worth it, since a huge part of their compositions consist of ice and other frozen volatiles - even if you did warm them up and get them to somehow hold on to breathable atmospheres, they'd be super-water-worlds with no land or solid surface.

Robert Rath:
NASA considered terraforming important enough to conduct a study on it in 1976, and terraforming articles still appear in peer-reviewed science journals. In fact, one of the principal planetary scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center - Dr. Christopher McKay - is one of the world's foremost experts on terraforming.

Wait, you're telling me that there's actually a Dr. McKay who's job is to study other planets? He better be allergic to citrus.

While it isn't really terraforming, an idea I've been interested in is the creation of floating aerostat cities on Venus.

The air we breathe on Earth is a lifting gas on Venus. We could basically make floating habitats and wouldn't need to deal with the difficulties of changing an entire planet's atmosphere and geothermic activity just to live on it. That's because the pressure at the layer you'd live in would be 1 bar and shielded from radiation by Venus' thick upper atmosphere.

Thunderous Cacophony:
Question from the uninformed: What is terraforming? I always thought it was reshaping a planet other than Earth to more closely resemble Earth (in geography, climate, atmosphere, lifeforms, etc.). However, this bit,

If you're reading this, you're terraforming a planet. The energy your device consumes as you read, the car you drove to get where you are, and the air conditioning that cools you all release carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere. The atmospheric change from all this carbon dioxide, and the solar heat it traps, melts polar ice and raises the sea level. That's unintentional terraforming.

makes me think that Rath is using a different definition.

The definition here is going to the most basic concept: Human activities altering a planet, intentionally or otherwise. When we're discussing it in the vast majority of contexts you're absolutely correct in thinking that it is making other planets more Earth-like, but from a strictly semantic standpoint it's any human activity that results in planet-wide changes, though there's some debate on if this can be considered correct usage of the term.

OT: Not sure what I think about all of this really. It still seems too distant an issue for me to want to worry about it too much, but if we ever manage to get a Mars colony then I'll just propel myself there with sheer enthusiasm.

shirkbot:

Thunderous Cacophony:
Question from the uninformed: What is terraforming? I always thought it was reshaping a planet other than Earth to more closely resemble Earth (in geography, climate, atmosphere, lifeforms, etc.). However, this bit,

If you're reading this, you're terraforming a planet. The energy your device consumes as you read, the car you drove to get where you are, and the air conditioning that cools you all release carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere. The atmospheric change from all this carbon dioxide, and the solar heat it traps, melts polar ice and raises the sea level. That's unintentional terraforming.

makes me think that Rath is using a different definition.

The definition here is going to the most basic concept: Human activities altering a planet, intentionally or otherwise. When we're discussing it in the vast majority of contexts you're absolutely correct in thinking that it is making other planets more Earth-like, but from a strictly semantic standpoint it's any human activity that results in planet-wide changes, though there's some debate on if this can be considered correct usage of the term.

Thanks. I'd never heard it applied to the Earth before, and certainly not to climate change.

It's more complicated than that. The lack of a stable magnetic field would bombard any settlers with extra doses of radiation, unmitigated by ozone layers which Mars' low gravity would have trouble to hold onto.
To create greenhouse gases we'd probably need to come up with heavier chemical compounds with such properties that still dissipate to gases at the existing temperatures.
If there is a chance of doing it, my best bet would be on robots. Better lifespans, more workhours per day, pretty much impervious to radiation or harsh day night temperature changes.

The atmosphere on Mars would provide some protection against radiation, although it wouldn't be as good as Earth's. It would also gradually reduce the atmosphere on terraformed Mars over time, but over an extremely long time period (hundreds of millions of years).

asako23:
To create greenhouse gases we'd probably need to come up with heavier chemical compounds with such properties that still dissipate to gases at the existing temperatures.

Hydrofleurocarbons would be safe and extremely powerful as manufactured greenhouse gases to warm Mars up.

WiseBass:
The atmosphere on Mars would provide some protection against radiation, although it wouldn't be as good as Earth's. It would also gradually reduce the atmosphere on terraformed Mars over time, but over an extremely long time period (hundreds of millions of years).

asako23:
To create greenhouse gases we'd probably need to come up with heavier chemical compounds with such properties that still dissipate to gases at the existing temperatures.

Hydrofleurocarbons would be safe and extremely powerful as manufactured greenhouse gases to warm Mars up.

This is one of the biggest problems with terraforming Mars (or any other geologically inactive planet really)

image

Life on earth is protected from an incredible array of potentially deadly space radiation due to the magnetic field that encircles the globe. This field is a result of the molten core of the planet itself and it's something that Mars doesn't possess.

So, even though we have the ability to change the atmosphere on mars, this doesn't necessarily mean that imported species from Earth (including us!) could live there without further geo-engineering.

Not trying to pooh-pooh space exploration, or even colonization (both I think are incredible dreams for mankind), but it's doubtful that we'll ever both terraforming a planet, let alone Mars, through some prolong/sustained program. Biospheres and habitability zones on the other hand are very probable.

Reading about the four schools of thought in regard to the ethical implications of terraforming I can't help but be reminded of the three Paths available in Civilization: Beyond Earth. Aaaaand now I really want to play Beyond Earth...

Jake Martinez:
Not trying to pooh-pooh space exploration, or even colonization (both I think are incredible dreams for mankind), but it's doubtful that we'll ever both terraforming a planet, let alone Mars, through some prolong/sustained program. Biospheres and habitability zones on the other hand are very probable.

Agreed. It's not because I don't think we could terraform Mars or other planets, but because there probably won't be any real demand for it. If you have the capability to build space habitats and enclosed biospheres then we'll do that instead, especially the space habitats - you can choose the gravity you want to simulate through rotation instead of taking Martian gravity for a given, and space travel between them would be easier.

I won't even begin to understand how this all works... I don't have the expertise or time to, but this sounds fucking cool! It's amazing to think that little Watson Jr hundreds of years in the future could be born on another planet because of science. However likely or unlikely, it could exist!

I don't care for the global warming slant but the theory and science has been there for years to include, theoretically, changing the trajectory of a comet and basically smacking it into a quality planet to produce a man made " big Bang", erupting the planet and letting the natural forces to do its job....and wallah... an M Class planet emerges.

That is a layman's version of course.

The problem won't be ethics, what is the difference between choosing whether to disturb microbial organism and aborting a pregnancy? People do it without a hitch these days. If they weren't going to merge into some higher form of species then they would stay a jelly/omeba/germ. I think Ethics would come into play if we actually found sentient life beyond a microbe such as actual animals or if you will, humanoid beings.

No the big problem would be getting people to go along with the attempt at terraforming because when ever anyone starts this conversation, the horde wants to cry and complain about problems at home, welfare, and repetitive social issues, war, politics, and nonsense squabbling. I'm afraid this would have to be a world effort, gathering the best minds from the leading industrious nations to reach a common goal of reaching mankind beyond earth..... and that is a huge, huge, order.

You know if people took more effort and excitement into the sciences than how many more inches Kim Kardashian's butt had increased, we'd be a very highly sophisticated people.

Wow! This article nearly moved me to tears. I'm an avid consumer of SciFi but this is the first time I feel like I've gotten a look at a real possibility about a distant future.

Thank you, Robert!

 

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