Could Mars ever be a new home for humans?

Could Mars ever be a new home for humans?
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The establishment of a colony on Mars has been a dream for decades, most recently championed by Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. Musk has stated that he has concrete plans to start his own Mars colony using a spacecraft he is developing called the Big Falcon Rocket. 

Inevitably some people have objected to the idea of colonizing Mars on both ideological and practical grounds. Some object to humans living on Mars because they would contaminate the planet, harming whatever bacterial lifeforms might be present. Others oppose Mars settlements because they disagree with the idea of using the Red Planet serve as a “backup” in case the Earth is destroyed. 

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Proponents of colonizing Mars, however, look to spread the human race beyond our single planet. The practical considerations of surviving long term on a world without a breathable atmosphere, no surface water, exposure to radiation, and extremes of heat and cold all have to be addressed first.

 

Mars colonists could survive in domed cities, extracting and recycling resources from the Martian environment. However, a more compelling vision of the settlement of the Red Planet envisions a process called terraforming, turning the hostile environment of Mars into something resembling Earth.

Billions of years ago, Mars was more like Earth, with a thick atmosphere as well as oceans and rivers of surface water. The planet may well have had complex life forms. However, sometime in the distant past, Mars lost its magnetic field. When Mars found itself without the protection of that field, solar wind relentlessly stripped it of its atmosphere, quickly turning the planet into the arid wasteland it currently is.

While a number of schemes exist to restore Mars’ atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse process that would raise its temperature, NASA and some academic researchers recently came up with a simple way to achieve the process naturally. The idea involves the deployment of an electromagnetic shield between Mars and the Sun to protect the Red Planet from solar wind. Without the solar wind stripping it away, the atmosphere of Mars would gradually become thicker.

Soon the temperature on the Martian surface would become high enough to release the trapped carbon dioxide at the poles, accelerating the greenhouse effect. Water ice at the poles would melt, giving Mars back some measure of its oceans and rivers. All humans would have to do is introduce genetically designed plants and animals to create a new Martian ecosystem. The process of turning Mars into a new Earth could take place in the span of a single human lifetime. That contrasts with previous schemes to terraform Mars that would take anywhere from several hundred to several thousand years.

The scheme to build an electromagnetic shield in space is at the conceptual stage. The engineering problems of building the thing and maintaining it essentially forever would be more than daunting. However, the prospect of returning Mars to its former state as a warm, wet world where life could flourish is an appealing one. Mars could be transformed into a place where not just a few people, but many millions would be able to move to in order to start a new life. The effects for human civilization would be beyond evaluation. 

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.