Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Trouble With Mars


Mars, as previously noted on this blog, has a nasty reputation for doing away with space missions from its inward neighbor. Its most recent victim was Phobos-Grunt, done away with before it left Earth parking orbit. This, by the way, is one more good reason why a human Mars mission should be robust, not a shoestring-budget stunt.

But until last post, I did not realize that Mars is hostile not only to space visitors but also to big-budget Hollywood movies. When I think about the Red Planet on the big screen I think of Mars Needs Women - it never struck me to notice a negative phenomenon, the lack of major epic Mars movies in the age of special effects.


Alyssa Rosenberg is wrong about Mars. She writes,

... there is zero reason the events of that movie need to take place on Mars, which I assume is only the setting because Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the books on which the movie is based thought it was cool.

Well, Burroughs did set his Barsoom stories there, arguably a non-zero reason in its own right. But he chose Mars for a reason - the same reason why a less pulpy author, HG Wells, choose it for his would-be colonizers of Earth. A century ago, Mars was a place of enormous interest, more than ever before and perhaps more than ever since.

This is because Percival Lowell was also wrong about Mars, and therein lies this tale. To recap, during the close opposition of 1877 the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli strained with eyeball at eyepiece to make out details of the Martian surface. During those brief moments of ideal telescopic 'seeing' he thought he glimpsed linear features on the Martian surface. He called them canali, a word that in Italian can mean either 'channels' or 'canals.'

English-speaking readers of his Mars observations naturally took the more colorful meaning - and the Mars of the imagination was born. Channels are natural features, but canals imply canal-builders.

Lowell went on to build a grand and elegant superstructure of speculation about those elusive (and, as it turned out, illusive) linear markings on the surface of Mars. It was as grand and elegant as a Martian city.

Mars was an old and dying world, argued Lowell. Its civilization was likewise old, and struggling to survive in the face of the dessication of its world. The oceans of Mars were long gone; only the mighty canal system allowed the waters of life to be captured from the annual melting of the icecaps. The irrigation they provided accounted for the seasonal changes of color observed on much of Mars.

It was a wonderful, evocative story, the ultimate struggle of civilization against relentless nature. And the power of the theme lent itself to multiple interpretations. The Mars of Wells, Burroughs, and Heinlein all derived from Schiaparelli's straining vision and Lowell's imaginative vision.

By the time I was a pre-teen this Mars was in tatters, but not entirely gone - not unlike a Martian city. The science books I was reading, mostly published in the 1950s, still had maps of Mars including the canals, even while cautioning that they were probably an optical illusion.

The end of this Mars came abruptly, and with supreme poignancy it was extinguished by space exploration. On July 14-15 1965, Mariner 4 snapped 21 images of Mars and a partial 22nd. The images were low resolution, and covered only a small part of the Martian surface. But in 1965 it was by far the best imagery of Mars anyone had ever seen. And Mariner 4's Mars looked far more like the Moon than it did like Barsoom.

In fact - a further layer of irony - those images looked far more like the Moon than most of Mars. By sheer chance the regions imaged were old, cratered terrain. Probably the resolution was too low to capture any of the features now thought to be actual water-carved channels. But the reaction to Mariner 4 might have been considerably different if, say, Valles Marineris been in one of the images.

Mars, indeed, has much in common with Percival Lowell's imaginative vision. It has no canals and no civilization, but it is indeed a geologically dying world. Its oceans and rivers have long vanished - billions of years ago, not mere millions - though indications are that water still occasionally flows there.

Mars was not the only science fiction world ruined by space exploration. Habitable Venus came to an equally sudden and even more devastating end in 1962, when Mariner 2 revealed its hellish surface conditions. But Venus, veiled by its clouds, had always been a purely speculative world. Mars had named surface features, at least some of which, like Syrtis Major, are still to be found there.

But by the time space missions revealed the new Mars, the old one was already dead and buried, with no chance of a relatively graceful transition. And perhaps that is the trouble with Mars. The old Mars, with its canals and spire-topped cities, was magnificent and vivid. It had a history, with all the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, and the tragedy that was Gibbons.

Between the Mars that still lingers in imagination and the desolate beauty of real Mars lies a canyon wider and deeper than Valles Marineris. Written SF can bridge it, but perhaps the movies - aimed at a much larger and more casual audience - cannot. How do you invite the 2012 audience to visit Mars as it was thought to be in 1912?

Then again, maybe Hollywood's trouble with Mars is simply that they have made a lot of bad Mars movies, and not so many good ones. Or, taking a middle road, Mars may be just one example of a broader phenomenon: Hollywood has an overall poor track record when it comes to the worlds of written SF. After all, except for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the best movies about space travel have not been sci-fi at all, but historical costume dramas.

Discuss.




The canal-era image of Mars is from the University of Alabama astronomy website.

73 comments:

Brett said...

I think it's mostly just a coincidence, since each of the Mars movies up to this point was bad in its own unique way (although I enjoyed Red Planet).

As for the swashbuckling fantasy* Barsoom Trilogy, I'd definitely chalk that up to audiences knowing that Mars is a desolate, possibly lifeless place. At least from what I've read, the "of Mars" bit was cut from the movie title because it turned people off the movie.

Thucydides said...

Perhaps the Kim Stanley Robinson "Mars" trilogy might be a good departure point for movies, videos and games to bring Mars back to the forefront of human imagination. This is the inverse of Percival Lowell's Mars, not a dying world but a world coming to life.

Of course an even more dramatic vision would use advanced nanomachinery to bring Mars back to life in a spectacular fashion; melting the polar icecaps and flooding the ancient ocean basins in a matter of decades rather than a thousand year terraforming cycle using biological means.

Brett said...

@Thucydides
Of course an even more dramatic vision would use advanced nanomachinery to bring Mars back to life in a spectacular fashion; melting the polar icecaps and flooding the ancient ocean basins in a matter of decades rather than a thousand year terraforming cycle using biological means.

Magic, then?

Anonymous said...

@Brett
Magic, then?

No, it's "technobabble!" Sheesh...

*rolls eyes*

~~
Samantha

ProperRocket said...

Total Recall is a pretty good mars movie, imo.

I think the myth comes from the fact that most Hollywood sci-fi is just bad. If you look around, you can find a fair amount of bad "moon" movies from the 60's and 70's.

Thucydides said...

True, Nanotechnology is only just emerging from the realm of "Magitech", but one thing which recent politics should have taught everyone is things need to have a near term payoff or no one will be interested. (If you use perverse incentives or have a bad plan to begin with, your "near term payoff" may well be a disaster).

Consider that there have been warnings that Medicare was unsustainable since it was introduced in the 1960's, or that Social Security (or Canada's Pension plan) would run out of money since at least the 1980's that I can remember, yet no corrective action was taken to fix the problems; the issue was always decades in the future.

The future is now, and in Canada the government has released proposals to fix the pension problem (probably gradual increases in the age of eligibility, premium increases and higher means testing thresholds). Predictably there is a huge crapstorm of opposition, despite the fact the current system is clearly unsustainable.

So even huge and fairly obvious issues can be put on the shelf if the "payoff" is more than a decade in the future, then only some sort of religious movement would be prepared to undertake a project who's payoff is measured in centuries (if at all).

Brett said...

A religious movement to terraform Mars would actually make for an interesting story. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be easy to adapt for a movie.

I kind of liked how Red Planet handled the situation. Humans did the ground work on terraforming Mars by heating it up, and then something unexpected happened that sped the process along further.

jollyreaper said...

The topic has come up a couple times and I agree, religious movements would be the most likely idea for centuries-long space efforts where no immediate payback is coming to the people back home.

A special exception would be a Pilgrim Model where everyone involved in the colony expedition are paying the freight as it were, therefore all the costs are incurred by the direct beneficiaries.

Michael W said...

No one has yet mentioned Robinson Crusoe On Mars which I feel is still the best movie to date dealing with the Red Planet.

And I'll go on record here as saying I regret the decision to cut "Mars" off the recent John Carter film. To me the decision is on a par as changing the Charles Dickens book to A Tale Of One City because it was felt people would be turned off by Paris.

Anonymous said...

True, Nanotechnology is only just emerging from the realm of "Magitech",

-------

I think though many people still have Magitech expectations for nanotechnology.

And in the short term no less.


(SA Phil)

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

If you could magically convert Mars's atmosphere to be a comprable mix to Earth's would it even be dense enough to truly be terraformed?

Or would it be like trying to make a colony on the top of Everest?

Brett said...

@Anonymous
If you could magically convert Mars's atmosphere to be a comprable mix to Earth's would it even be dense enough to truly be terraformed?

Or would it be like trying to make a colony on the top of Everest?


Mars' current atmospheric pressure at the "sea level"/datum is too low for water to stay liquid everywhere except down in the Hellas Planitia, so you'd need to thicken it up more before it would be habitable.

I'm not sure what you'd choose for atmospheric composition, either. Oxygen and CO2 are obvious, but there's not really a plentiful supply of nitrogen on Mars to add to the atmosphere AFAIK.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

So there is a question -- how do you "thicken up" a planet's atmosphere?

Is the atmospheric density not a product of the planet's gravity?

Or is there mor to it than that?

Brett said...

@Anonymous
So there is a question -- how do you "thicken up" a planet's atmosphere?

Is the atmospheric density not a product of the planet's gravity?

Or is there mor to it than that?


There's carbon dioxide frozen at the south pole of Mars. Heat that up, and it will thicken the atmosphere. You could also heat up the soil.

Atmosphere density is a product of both gravity and temperature. A planet with low gravity but also a very low temperature can hold on to a thicker atmosphere as long as it doesn't freeze out. Titan's a good example of that, with a thick nitrogen and methane atmosphere that it holds in spite of its low gravity.

In Mars' case, a warm Mars is never going to hold an atmosphere as thick as Earth's unless you dump a lot of heavier gases into it (like a ton of CO2).

Anonymous said...

Thanks - that is interesting.

Wont the CO2 cause it to get even warmer?

The balancing act will be pretty amazing in the end I expect.

(SA Phil)

Thucydides said...

A complex carbon cycle will be needed since Mars does not have plate tectonics anymore, do as carbon is cycled out of the atmosphere there are no subduction zones to bring it to the mantle to be belched forth from the volcanoes.

If it is possible to develop some sort of godlike nanotech, then there are several obvious "cheats" for the atmosphere and warming problems. Surrounding Mars with a series of Solettas to regulate the temperature comes to mind. Building a shell out of diamond or silicon to surround the planet and trap the atmosphere is another exotic possibility. Importing megatonnes of gasses from the outer planets might also be considered (Titan has a methane and nitrogen atmosphere, as has been pointed out, or you could send chunks of frozen ice and gasses from smaller moons. The impact energy of a rain of ice would heat up the planet and release the volatile elements into the atmosphere).

Of course, by that time there may be exotic new technologies that make these brute force methods seem like speculations by cathedral builders of the Middle Ages on what the skyline of New York City will look like.

Brett said...

I personally tend towards having a higher concentration of CO2, methane, and water vapor as the source of the planet's warmth, possibly with some "super-greenhouse" gases that break down in a brief period. Relying on mirrors makes me a bit wary - I don't want the planet's ecosystem to come crashing down if something happens to them, and I don't think it's necessary (unlike Venus and a sunshade).

I wonder if filling up Vastitas Borealis with water (as in the Mars Trilogy) would help to keep the planet warm. That ocean water would have a lower albedo than most of the land, and absorb a lot of heat.

Anonymous said...

On Terraforming Mars, you could use the "Black Daisy" approch; a geneticly engineered plant capable of thriving on the surface of Mars is introduced in lage numbers. As they spread and grow, they change the albino of the planet, as well as pumping out O2 and excess water vapor into the atmosphere. Estimates of how long it would take to complete range from decades to centuries; howevere, it is something we could do now, or in the very near future.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

And that should read "albedo" not 'albino'

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

There could be your MacGuffin for an expedition to Mars ...

If you find Microbial life (even just remnants) on Mars you could use it to help genetically engineer a plant that more easily thrives on Mars.

Rick said...

Is there any established term for scientific/technological jive that is of better quality than 'technobabble?' Because surely there is such a thing, even if we don't have a clear term for it.

Atmospheric density is the result of many interacting factors. (Whadda surprise!) The atmospheric density on Mars is about 0.7 percent of Earth's. (On Venus, 90x Earth's.)

So you would need to add a *lot* more atmosphere. If Mars has enough ice for seas, it should have enough to build up O2 to human-breathable density. Of course you have to get rid of the H2 - it would eventually escape into space, but probably too slowly for to be useful for terraforming (unless your time horizon is *really* long).

My gut feeling is that terraforming Mars to human habitability would take on order of 1000 years, which puts it well past 'midfuture,' plausible or otherwise. But that is the purest of WAGs.

kedamono@mac.com said...

One, I agree with @Michael W that Robinson Crusoe on Mars was one of the better ones. It was accurate for the times, as Mariner 4 didn't launch till November 1964. After the pictures from Mars came back, you probably couldn't get this movie made at all. So it was lucky.

As for another vision of Mars, check out Cowboy Bebop Most of the marginally habitable bodies in the solar system have been terraformed. Mars is only partially terraformed, with huge walls holding in the atmosphere in a couple of large craters on the planet. Even then, the atmosphere kept shooting up over the edge of the walls.

Brett said...

@Rick
My gut feeling is that terraforming Mars to human habitability would take on order of 1000 years, which puts it well past 'midfuture,' plausible or otherwise. But that is the purest of WAGs.

Oh, I agree. Short of nigh-magical technology (such as the nanotechnology mentioned earlier), or an absurdly huge industrial effort on Mars, giving it an atmosphere and turning it into a breathable one would take a long time.

I think even Kim Stanley Robinson would acknowledge that. There was an interview with him somewhere where he said that he sped up the process of terraforming for dramatic purposes, turning what would probably take more than a thousand years into something that took 200 years.

Hugh said...

Why terraform Mars when you can adapt humans? Frederick Pohl wrote a good novel "Man Plus" about cyborgs on Mars.
While the technology may be just as fanciful as that needed to terraform, it seems to me that cyborging or bioengineering the people requires less sheer scale and quantity of resources.

Bryan said...

Interesting discussion.

Just want to add a biology angle to the discussion. While CO2 would be useful for thickening the atmosphere, it would likely come at a high human cost - that being we humans cannot survive in a high-CO2 environment (even if provided ample O2). Dissolved CO2 in our blood is used by our brains to determine if we need to breath more/less; the high levels you would encounter in a thick atmosphere would lead to hypercapnia; a condition which is fatal unless resolved.

The "lethal" point is not clear at this time, although a partial CO2 pressure of 0.1ATA is generally considered the threshold for sever hypercapnia. Even lower doses can be problematic - extended exposure to CO2 (which our body partially converts into bicarbonate) can alter blood pH. At high enough concentrations (sorry, no idea exactly where it would be in terms of CO2 partial pressure), hemoglobin would no longer work as dissolved CO2 would out-compete O2 for binding to the oxygen binding sites.

In theory this could be addressed through genetic modification, although the degree of alteration needed would be high (you'd have to "reprogram" both the mechanism used to control breathing, as well as the mechanisms to control blood pH, and potentially replace haemoglobin with something that will work at high CO2 tensions).

Bryan

jollyreaper said...

Has anyone else had trouble getting into the Mars Trilogy? I got it as an audiobook and am having trouble maintaining interest in the first novel. I can enjoy a good political intrigue but what there is here feels more tedious than interesting. Does it get any better? I find I like the high concept of the story far more than any of the characters involved in it.

Brett said...

@jollyreaper
Has anyone else had trouble getting into the Mars Trilogy? I got it as an audiobook and am having trouble maintaining interest in the first novel. I can enjoy a good political intrigue but what there is here feels more tedious than interesting. Does it get any better? I find I like the high concept of the story far more than any of the characters involved in it.

Green Mars has some good story lines, and includes the second-generation of children born on Mars as POV characters. Overall, though, it doesn't really get much better if you dislike Red Mars.

Blue Mars is much worse than either of them. The "concept" stuff is interesting (including descriptions of solar system-wide colonization), but everything else sinks under bloat and KSR's overwhelming fondness for writing boring scenes depicting people wandering around in nature.

Thucydides said...

Filling the ocean basins with water would act as a huge "flywheel" to moderate the absorption and release of heat into the Martian atmosphere, and probably would be the key to any Terraforming effort.

Modifying humans may or may not be an issue. Ethical considerations will certainly take part in any decision of that sort, But if extensive terraforming can bring Mars to a climate similar to the last Ice Age we could survive with minimal changes; our ancestors did so with Neolithic era technology.

I mentioned this in comments on a different post, one thing which may happen is the environment may be extensively "wired" with high resolution sensors to create an "Internet of things" under extensive computer or AI control in order to monitor the environment and "tweak" the ecosphere in support of terraforming. Humans might find living in such an environment without any sort of privacy and possibly under the restrictive "acceptable use policy" of a godlike AI to be totally unappealing.

Stevo Darkly said...

This is magitech, of course, but remember that discussion we had a while back about traveling via wormholes? And whether the wormhole entrances would need to be in space, or could be on the surfaces of planets so that we could step directly from one planet to another, "Stargate" style?

So we stick one Gate on Mars and the other on Venus, then open them up. Let the atmospheres mingle until some sort of equilibrium is achieved, so that Mars ends up with a lot more atmosphere, and Venus ends up with a lot less. This should help make it easier to terraform both planets.

We should also stick a Gate on Titan, to import some nitrogen from there.

I'm not sure how having different gravities on either side of a Gate might inhibit the flow of gas from one world to another. Probably before the atmospheric pressure is actually equalized, atmosphere might be inhibited from flowing "uphill" from higher-gravity Venus to lower-gravity Mars (being more attracted by the former).

I'm also not sure of the relative air pressure of Titan, either -- maybe more Mars/Venus atmosphere would flow to Titan than vice versa. So, once things have equalized as much as they're going to naturally, we might have to intervene more actively in encouraging the flow of atmosphere from here to there as needed. Hmmm. Maybe by setting up huge ducted fans in front of the Gates? Ducted fans a kilometer tall, blowing more-than-hurricane-force winds?

However, I will leave the resolution of these minor engineering details as an exercise for the more technically oriented ... :)

Thucydides said...

If you can create wormholes, by definition you can control gravity by warping spacetime to the shape you like.

Warping a spacetime "tunnel" that flows "downhill" from the origin to the terminus is probably a minor engineering detail. More exciting is expanding the principle to "drape" spacetime over your planet to get the gravity you deserve (which would make an amazing slogan for would be planet salesmen...) What other sorts of things you can do in the implausible far future is an exercise for the reader.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Hey, look! The posting form actually works again!



Thucydides:

"Of course an even more dramatic vision would use advanced nanomachinery to bring Mars back to life in a spectacular fashion; melting the polar icecaps and flooding the ancient ocean basins in a matter of decades rather than a thousand year terraforming cycle using biological means."

I highly doubt nanotechnology would be useful here, even with optimistic assumptions of what it's capable of. Melting ice caps is large-scale stuff. The difficulty in terraforming is a lack of brute force, not a lack of finesse. Using nanotechnology would be a step backwards.



Brett:

"I'm not sure what you'd choose for atmospheric composition, either. Oxygen and CO2 are obvious, but there's not really a plentiful supply of nitrogen on Mars to add to the atmosphere AFAIK."

I find it somehow ironic that, out of the gasses we want in our atmosphere, it is the totally inert one that does nothing that presents the biggest challenge in terraforming.



SA Phil:

"If you could magically convert Mars's atmosphere to be a comparable mix to Earth's would it even be dense enough to truly be terraformed?"

If you can magically add and remove gasses at will, then you can add as much atmosphere as you need to get the same air pressure - and therefore density - as Earth.

Measure "air loading" in ton of air per km^2 of surface. Assume planets under consideration have comparable density. Then (using "~~" to mean "is proportional to", so I don't have to worry about constants):

air pressure ~~ air loading * surface gravity ~~ air loading * radius

air volume ~~ air loading * surface area ~~ air loading * radius^2

air volume ~~ air pressure * radius

air loading ~~ air pressure / radius

So in conclusion, if you want to fix a certain air pressure, then smaller planets make less efficient use of their air and need more air per surface area to provide enough pressure, but smaller planets still need less air in total (only by a smaller margin than you might expect).

This is observed in Titan, which has an atmospheric surface pressure comparable to Earth's, but the atmosphere extends much farther out.



Rick:

"If Mars has enough ice for seas, it should have enough to build up O2 to human-breathable density."

For oxygen sources, don't forget the value of silicon dioxide. I don't know how hard it is to extract the oxygen from silicon dioxide versus dihydrogen monoxide, but it's plentiful pretty much everywhere in the solar system, as it goes by the common name of "rock". (Well, the most common type of rock, anyway. Other rocks tend to contain a lot of oxygen too.) The silicon produced as a byproduct has an industrial value as well, though probably not in quite that large amounts.



Stevo Darkly:

"So we stick one Gate on Mars and the other on Venus, then open them up. Let the atmospheres mingle until some sort of equilibrium is achieved, so that Mars ends up with a lot more atmosphere, and Venus ends up with a lot less. This should help make it easier to terraform both planets."

Venus has way too much carbon dioxide, even spread across two planets. You'd need a three-way wormhole system with a filtering system to separate the gasses - spread Venus's nitrogen across Venus and Mars, while porting most of the carbon dioxide to some far-off storage depot like Ganymede, where it won't get in the way. Make some oxygen from cracking H20, SiO2, or CO2, and you're set.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



And yet, while the posting WORKS, I still get pushed aside by the spam filter. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Thucydides said...

Milo

Magitech nanotechnology can work in many ways (because its magitech ;)), you can assemble vast solar mirrors, create energy absorbing ground cover (anything from dark matting to optical rectenna, depending on your abilities and plan).

The ultimate expression would be to have trillions of nanomachines in the soil separating oxygen from the iron and silicon in the rock. The waste heat from that operation would warm the climate, melt the permafrost and polar caps and provide mountains of building materials to boot.

Of course, this speculation is probably as valid as Leonardo's codex on flight. The theory si roughly correct (some of his flying machines might well have workeas primitive hang gliders), but lack of proper materials and engine technology prevented any practical application of his designs.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

To throw in a doubting Thomas theme ...

I doubt nano-technology will ever live up to the current hype.

I think one of the stumbling blocks is going to be energy - much like the major stumbling block of macro-technology.

==============
Of course I also think the "Singularity" will be about as eventful as Y2K was. But I digress.

Thucydides said...

Unless you are willing to wait for a really, really long time, you have to invoke some form of magitech to terraform Mars.

I'm not going to claim that you can really use nanotech, or warping gravity fields to terraform Mars; it is simply impossible to predict what sort of technology could be used to perform such a feat. Indeed, by the time the human race gets around to doing this, there may be technologies we won't even recognize to do so.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

One thing -- although we as SF fans have a time scale we'd like things to happen in ...

Say 100 years for the terraforming of Mars from 2200 to 2300 AD as an example.

Or Rick's more pessimistic 1000 years.

There is no real time limit like that. Say it takes 1 million years for "self"-replicating machines to do the work.

The end result is the same. At some point we will either die out or be effectively immortal as a species, 1 million years would be a very feasible solution to the problem of making Mars habitable.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



A timescale of one million years would be less suitable for space opera and planetary romance and more for 2001-style "newcomer on the galactic block evolving under the watchful eye of an incomprehensively godlike supercivilization" type stories.

Brett said...

@Thucydides
I'm not going to claim that you can really use nanotech, or warping gravity fields to terraform Mars; it is simply impossible to predict what sort of technology could be used to perform such a feat.

The closest I can think of would be a combination of the solar mirrors, a ton of surface "factories" that do nothing but pump oxygen into the air by cracking water ice, and giant facilities in the Vastitas basin that do nothing but heat up the water ice in the ground to pump it on to the surface.

At least hypothetically, none of that's magitech. It would be expensive as hell, and no meager engineering feat, but it might do the trick of getting Mars a breathable atmosphere and habitable temperature within a couple of hundred years.

Of course, having that isn't the same as creating a self-sustaining Martian ecosystem that maintains its habitability even after you stop the factories and possibly relocate the mirrors. So maybe in that sense, Mars wouldn't really be "terraformed".

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, the 'old' idea of terraforming a planet involved 'waves' of microbes (i.e. seeding with a taylored group of microbes to do a specific step in the proccess), then waves of more complex organisms, slowly working your way up to trees, grasses, deer, and wolves type biomes. At that point, humans would start large scale colonization. This project would take anywhere from a few to several human generations. While this would take longer than Magitech(TM), it would take a lot less then a 1000 years, but it would result in a more permanent solution. However, you still might have to do something about the planet's magnetic field and/or plate tetoninics. The bottom line is that no matter the method, terraforming a planet is expensive and time-consuming.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Seeding the planet with life will do nicely for producing fertile soil and breathable atmosphere, starting with a dense but oxygen-free atmosphere.

Earth life won't do so well at making an atmosphere out of nowhere, though, and you need to have decent temperature conditions for anything but extremophiles to take hole.

Magnetic fields and plate tectonics are needed (maybe) for a planet's viability over geologic timescales, but are of little concern over human timescales.

Anonymous said...

Err, take hold.

Thucydides said...

Well that's really the point.

In principle, we could start terraforming Mars tomorrow, but it would be so difficult and so expensive, and require so much cutting edge technology (or such a vast investment of traditional heavy iron technology) that it would be effectively impossible to do without bankrupting the Earth.

Similarly, many of Leonardo Da Vinci's multitude of engineering designs do work (modern reproductions have demonstrated this), but with the technology and economic infrastructure available at the time, there was no way to implement them.

Even farther in the past, we have seen serious engineering and technological feats (there was a Suez canal in Egyptian times, and steam engines of a sort were known in Hellenistic age Greeks), but they were mostly one offs which could not be sustained or repeated reliably (the first Suez canal silted up, and Greek steam engines were considered clever toys or used as "special effects" at temples).

So as a minimum there will need to be many years or even centuries of R&D work, or economic development and creation of such vast quantities of capital (actually both) to perform such tasks at a speed and proce that people are willing to pay and accept.

Deja Thoris had one advantage over us (besides inheriting the Martian atmosphere plant); Martians have a lifespan of 1000 years so a century long project isn't a big deal for her (she can work on her fencing skills while she waits for the project to finish...;)

Brett said...

@Anonymous
If I remember correctly, the 'old' idea of terraforming a planet involved 'waves' of microbes (i.e. seeding with a taylored group of microbes to do a specific step in the proccess), then waves of more complex organisms, slowly working your way up to trees, grasses, deer, and wolves type biomes.

I think the main issue is that you would need to thicken up the planet's atmosphere and warm it up enough so that water could at least show up in liquid form in the soil (or better yet, on the surface for part of the year). Once you can do that, it wouldn't be too hard to introduce primitive plants and microbes to do their thing (although trees actually need a small amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, if I recall correctly).

James Lovell actually made a stab at this in his fauxumentary Greening of Mars novel. They terraformed Mars by dumping a bunch of super-greenhouse gases into the air, which warmed up the CO2 at the poles and got that into the air (warming the planet further). After that, they introduced a bunch of plant species, which put enough oxygen in the air so that people could walk around with nothing but light breathing masks and pumps to filter out the CO2 in the air while pumping enough O2 to breath.

No idea if that would work or not.

@Thucydides
Deja Thoris had one advantage over us (besides inheriting the Martian atmosphere plant); Martians have a lifespan of 1000 years so a century long project isn't a big deal for her (she can work on her fencing skills while she waits for the project to finish...;)

I wonder if you would just end up taking longer to do things. Nobody would be complaining about "stagnation" in the manned spaceflight program if we all had 1000 years to live. :D

Anonymous said...

Roofing over and pressurizing Valles Marineris, while a considerable engineering task, would be more easily achieved than terraforming the whole planet, and could provide a largely earth-like environment for millions, possibly even billions of people.

R.C.

Anonymous said...

R.C. said:"Roofing over and pressurizing Valles Marineris, while a considerable engineering task, would be more easily achieved than terraforming the whole planet, and could provide a largely earth-like environment for millions, possibly even billions of people."

I've heard that proposal before; not just for Mars, but for various other craters and valleys on other planets and moons in the Solar System...partial terraforming; I don't remember what it was called, but would result in a patch-work of habitats spread across a world's surface.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Since your base dies if the roof over the crater is breached, I consider this to be a variant of domed colony, just with preexisting geological formations providing part of the dome (the walls, but not the ceiling).

There is in principle no size limit to a domed colony, as long as you have the time and engineering expertise to build a dome that large. (Though practically, larger domed colonies are likely to consist of several smaller domes connected to each other.)

Brett said...

Valles Marineris is 200 kilometers wide and several kilometers deep. Even with lower Martian gravity, I'm not sure if we have the capability to build a canopy over the whole thing. We'd probably be better off just building a giant "tent" city somewhere, like down in the Hellas Basin where the normal Martian air is thicker.

Or even better, build most of the city underground, and just put parks and gardens up in the dome.

Sean said...

Brett said: "Or even better, build most of the city underground, and just put parks and gardens up in the dome."

I've always felt that building most of the colony underground was the better of ideas - it offers greater heat insulation, greater protection from radiation and from the incremental Martian weather.

Also, on a side note does anyone here know how to calculate the visual magnitude (or apparent brightness) of a rocket exhaust?

Thucydides said...

Buckminster Fuller once calculated that a dome of sufficient size effectively becomes a hot air baloon and would become bouyant with just the heat differential between the warm air trapped in the dome and the outside air.

This effect becomes obvious with domes over 1000 m in diameter, which means city sized domes would need anchors to keep from floating away. Martian air is much thinner, but also much colder, so some serious calculations would be needed to understand the relationships between size, tenperature and bouyancy.

Of course, a floating city state cruising through the sky of Mars (or Earth, for that matter) might be a wonderful diversion.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

Normally I'd agree with putting most of a colony (/base) underground, but at the very low temperature that might be problematic.

Compare to Antarctic bases.

On the magnitude of rocket exhausts, for those willing to play with a calculator: The Sun puts out about 4 * 10^26 watts, about half in visible light, and is visual mag -28 at 1 AU = 150 million km. Five magnitudes is a factor of 100 in brightness.

Plug in the inverse square law and waste energy, and you can get the maximum brightness of an exhaust, across all wavelengths. Stir in devils in the details, etc.

Shorter answer: Rocket exhaust flares are *bright*, making night launches very impressive.

Thucydides said...

The main reason that Antarctic bases are not built underground is the ground is ice, which is in constant motion, as well as the detrimental effects of heat on your foundation. Buildings in Arctic Canada are also built on stilts or elevated platforms to prevent the permafrost from melting.

On a place like Mars, or the Moon, where going underground to shield yourself from radiation is a key factor, the base might resemble the NORAD bunker in Colorado Springs (the real one, not the movie version). To ensure the base can remain functional in the event of nuclear attack, each structure is isolated from the ground by a series of dampers, similar in design to the shock absorbers and springs on a car. Imagine a series of trailers in a cave mounted on these dampers and you get the idea.

On Mars, where nuclear attack is less of an issue, the shelters would still be mounted on isolation platforms to limit heat transfer. With the low atmospheric pressure inside the cave, each unit is essentially in a thermos bottle (and each unit would be heavily insulated as well). Not exactly the exciting lifestyle of space colonization, but people who have spent a long time in a space hab getting there will probably be used to this.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Thucydides about building habatats underground on Luna and Mars; I'd think that you'd still have some structures above ground for observation and supply receiving, but most people would work underground and all would live there.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"Buckminster Fuller once calculated that a dome of sufficient size effectively becomes a hot air baloon and would become bouyant with just the heat differential between the warm air trapped in the dome and the outside air."

If there is air outside the dome? Yes. If the outside of the dome is vacuum, or even thin Martian atmosphere, then there's no way human-breathable air is going to act as a lifting gas there.

This could be an issue for a Titan base, since Titan's atmosphere is denser than ours.

Furthermore, you could always remedy the issue by making the dome thicker and thus weighing it down.

Also consider that if there's an atmosphere outside, some heat will leak out of the dome. The air outside the dome won't be quite as much colder than the air inside the dome as you might think.


"Martian air is much thinner, but also much colder, so some serious calculations would be needed to understand the relationships between size, temperature and bouyancy."

Umm, no. All that matters is density. Hot air is less dense than cold air with the same composition and pressure, hence why hot air balloons work. But if you know the density, you don't have to worry about the details of the factors that contribute to it.

Any domed city on Mars is necessarily going to be pressurized, and so much, much denser than the surroundings.


"Of course, a floating city state cruising through the sky of Mars (or Earth, for that matter) might be a wonderful diversion."

Try this on Venus if you want, the outside air there is really really dense. You won't have access to surface resources, though, which is very bad for a colony.


"On Mars, where nuclear attack is less of an issue,"

For now!



Ferrell:

"I have to agree with Thucydides about building habatats underground on Luna and Mars; I'd think that you'd still have some structures above ground for observation and supply receiving, but most people would work underground and all would live there."

I prefer aboveground domes - why waste good sunlight? And it's more aesthetic if you can see stars looking up, rather than rock. It just seems wrong to me to build a settlement on the moon which doesn't have a view of Earth in the sky.

You'd need massive engineering ability to build an aboveground dome large and sturdy enough to hold in a city (and made of highly transparent glass, no less), but you'd also need massive engineering ability to hollow out a large enough cave to build a city in.

Thucydides said...

Domes of kilometer size are calculated to float on Earth with temperature differentials of 1 degree C between the inside and outside, so som pretty clever engineering is going to be needed on Earth at least.

It is true that having a denser outside atmosphere makes generating positive bouyancy easier, but it is not impossible for balloon flight to take place on Mars. Several proposed probes were designed to take balloons to Mars, and although they were not hot air balloons, the effects of solar heating during the day were considered as part of the mission profile. The French balloo probe would cool and drop close to the ground at night, allowing a probe (resembling a sticky piece of rope) to drag and pick up samples.

The real reason a transparent dome isn't going to fly on Mars has less to do with the atmosphere than with radiation protection. A transparent dome on Mars would need to be a clear bladder with @ 2.5m of water between the inner and outer walls to protect the colony. Just mustering up that amount of water over a city sized dome on Mars would be a difficult feat; the engineering to keep that mass of water overhead would be pretty impressive, and if the water shield freezes, you will have issues with both the view and ice expansion on the structure.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"It is true that having a denser outside atmosphere makes generating positive bouyancy easier, but it is not impossible for balloon flight to take place on Mars. Several proposed probes were designed to take balloons to Mars, and although they were not hot air balloons, the effects of solar heating during the day were considered as part of the mission profile."

Yes, but those probes were designed to be buoyant, and were not designed for their lifting gas to also be breathable to Earth life.

All I'm saying is that a domed city humans are supposed to live in will not be buoyant on Mars. I'm not saying buoyancy on Mars is impossible, nor that buoyant cities on Earth are impossible, just that buoyant cities on Mars are impossible. (Also, on the moon or other airless rocks, all of the above are impossible.)


"A transparent dome on Mars would need to be a clear bladder with @ 2.5m of water between the inner and outer walls to protect the colony."

Does it have to be water?

A few meters of most anything solid should protect you from radiation.

Water may be more mass-efficient, but on surface structures built with local materials mass-efficiency isn't such a huge concern.

Nick P. said...

...Do we really even need buoyancy?

If the domes are under pressure that'll go a long way to helping to support them.

Hell, I've even seen plans for Mars colonies based not on solid domes but thick plastic inflated bubbles.

Thucydides said...

Water is the most mass efficient, and also allows the option of having a clear dome for an outside view. (Given the Martian dust the outer layer of the bladder will probably be scratched up in short order, but you will still have a translucent dome.

Using other materials like concrete are possible, but since they have to be made thicker to provide radiation shielding, the engineering problems become more difficult. A solid concrete or metal dome would also need a massive investment in lighting, and probably a heavy duty cooling system as well since all the waste heat from the lights and everything else inside will be trapped by the dome. I think the severe temperature differentials between the inside and outside of the dome might be a much bigger issue than the pressure differential, but once again a structural engineer will have to do the math on that one.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"Using other materials like concrete are possible, but since they have to be made thicker to provide radiation shielding, the engineering problems become more difficult."

Yes, but using materials that are solid rather than liquid makes the engineering simpler.

It balances out.

Damien Sullivan said...

"I've heard that proposal before; not just for Mars, but for various other craters and valleys on other planets and moons in the Solar System...partial terraforming; I don't remember what it was called, but would result in a patch-work of habitats spread across a world's surface."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming#Paraterraforming
also "worldhouse", especially once you've covered the place.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Damien!

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

Could always do a double wall aquarium "dome" top ...

*Plexiglass/glass
*Water
*Plexiglass/glass

I think the radiation is more of a problem on the Moon that Mars. Mars has a magnetic field.

Could you not include a loop of wire into your dome and use a magnetic field to help shield your domed colony from charged particles?

That is one of the adantages NASA lists for the Magsail & M2P2 propulsion concepts.

Anonymous said...

SA Phil said:"I think the radiation is more of a problem on the Moon that Mars. Mars has a magnetic field. "

Mars has localized magnetic fields, not a world-wide field like the Earth does; that's part of why Mars lost a lot of its atmosphere.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Water domes have various advantages and disadvantages.

Some advantages are simplified lighting during the day; the mass of water acts as a thermal buffer against temperature swings, it is its own cooling system, and you can use the water dome for secondary purposes (tubes of algae or underwater plants in the dome can create a garden of sorts, either for viewing pleasure or to provide some food and oxygen).

Disadvantages include the risk of leaks, freezing or perhaps boiling, pressure waves moving through the dome and disrupting the structure etc.

Solid domes may be easier to engineer, but will also be much more massive. The mass also works as a thermal buffer, although temerature gradients across the dome (between inside and outside) might cause issues.

Overall, if you are using a passive radiation shield, water comes out best since it is more economical in mass and it has more secondary uses.

An active radiation shield may be much lighter, but other issues will have to be addressed such as power and waste heat management, graceful failure modes and backups.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

Maybe use active systems in your mass-is-everything because everything came from Earth days

And then move onto more massive but simpler solutions once you had local industry.

Thucydides said...

Isn't it the other way around?

Use local mass as a passive shield until you have the industry to make active sheilds.

Anonymous said...

Other that Caves and rocks you dont have any local mass for a Dome though on day 1.

If you bring say a greenhouse dome with an embedded wire (sort of like the defroster for a car window) it could be fairly low mass (and small scale)

==========
For example .. the majority of Mars Colony 1 is located in a cave -- while the greenhouse/skybox area is a plastic tent with an active magnetic field. The tent was shipped from Earth.

They then work on establishing Industry. 10 years later they make a big glass Dome with walls of locally produced leaded glass thick enough to protect them from radiation even in the case of a (hopefully short term) power-failure.

As the colony grey larger and larger domes could be made - mass is no longer a problem since there is local industry.
==========

I dont think charged particles are the only radiation hazard - they are just the easiest to protect against if you have electricity availible.


(SA Phil)

Anonymous said...

Other that Caves and rocks you dont have any local mass for a Dome though on day 1.

If you bring say a greenhouse dome with an embedded wire (sort of like the defroster for a car window) it could be fairly low mass (and small scale)

==========
For example .. the majority of Mars Colony 1 is located in a cave -- while the greenhouse/skybox area is a plastic tent with an active magnetic field. The tent was shipped from Earth.

They then work on establishing Industry. 10 years later they make a big glass Dome with walls of locally produced leaded glass thick enough to protect them from radiation even in the case of a (hopefully short term) power-failure.

As the colony grey larger and larger domes could be made - mass is no longer a problem since there is local industry.
==========

I dont think charged particles are the only radiation hazard - they are just the easiest to protect against if you have electricity availible.


(SA Phil)

Thucydides said...

A small scale dome for the exploration party with some sort of active shield is quite doable, but for a colony sized structure you would be looking at passive shielding.

It may make more sense to bring an excavator along and "dig in" your early long term base as well since the lightweight dome also needs a power plant, and if something goes wrong with the dome, control electronics, generator, cooling system etc. you will be in for a very uncomfortable time. The excavator can continue to dig more trenches for housing modules as the base expands, and by itself the excavator might not mass much more than an active shield dome kit.

If I had the mass budget, I'd probably do both.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new (?) commenter!

(The hesitation is because I don't always remember the names/handles of occasional commenters.)

On Mars, air at Earth surface density could, in theory, hold up a layer of water close to 10 meters thick, ample for shielding. But the technical details would surely be ... challenging.

In any case, I wouldn't expect these sort of considerations to arise for multiple planning cycles after the first expedition, or even an initial permanent base. By the time such decisions are made, we'll know a lot more about operating on Mars.

Anonymous said...

Lava tubes, caves, buried trenches, water-filled domes, roofed-over craters or valleys; yeah, it might take a couple of decades of experimenting to discover what works best. We should start soon, to find out what works best...

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



People aren't going to move to Mars at all until they feel they can have confidence in the habitat's design, at least to the point that they trust it to remain pressurized if something goes wrong.

Improved technologies might be developed later, but the initial design still has to work, and well, even if it isn't cheap.

Jace Cavacini said...

i love all this talk about terraforming Mars when we can't even figure out what's going on with the Earth, nor create a 100% inclosed habitat on the Earth for experimentation. This is why people balk at expending resources on space travel. Aside from getting our eggs out of one basket, there's little compelling motivation to put humans into an intolerable environment when we have an environment that we've evolved within. Even with the eggs in one basket case, most human beings can't comprehend the actual risk because they live such short myopic lives.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads!

This is a very valid point! So far as I know, no one has done a 'Biosphere III' - which tells us that it is not easy to do. I don't know that we will colonize space - at least on the midfuture time scale - any more than we have really colonized Antarctica.