These Experiments Are Building the Case to Terraform Mars

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 14, 2016 10:43 am

An artist’s conception of what Mars could look like as it gradually becomes more habitable. (Credit: Daein Ballard/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether it’s extreme climate change, an impending asteroid impact, scientific curiosity or even space tourism, there are compelling reasons to think about calling Mars our second home. But before expanding humanity’s cosmic real estate holdings, scientists will need to make the Red Planet feel a little more like our blue marble.

That, in a nutshell, is the goal of researchers thinking about ways to terraform another planet.

Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, has suggested we nuke the polar ice caps on Mars to unlock liquid water and release clouds of CO2 that would thicken the atmosphere and warm the planet. This notion got some press last year when Major League Baseball player and amateur astrophysicist Jose Canseco tweeted: “By my calculations if we nuked the polar ice caps on Mars we would make an ocean of 36 feet deep across the whole planet,” thereby enshrining the idea in our popular imagination. Giant mirrors concentrating sunlight on the poles and smashing an entire moon into Mars also top the list of grandiose proposals to Earth-ify the Red Planet.

While we may not utilize the kind of cataclysmic forces that some futurists imagine, there are very real efforts, backed up by solid science, currently underway that are building a case for terraforming, one small step for mankind at a time.

Martian Greenhouse

Technically, we’re already getting practice terraforming at a planet-wide scale.

“There’s one solution to terraforming that makes sense when you work out the numbers and it’s something that we know how to do,” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “And that’s warming the planet by greenhouse gases. That’s basically how we’re warming up the Earth.”

The basic plan for creating a livable environment on Mars goes like this: Introduce enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to begin a cycle of warming, melting the polar ice caps and releasing CO2. This would kickstart a feedback loop of warming as more and more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere. When the atmosphere thickens and temperatures warm to the point where life could survive, scientists would introduce hardy microbes that would synthesize the gaseous chemicals, beef up the atmosphere and add molecular diversity to the once-barren planet. Over time, we’d plant trees to provide oxygen, and at some point the Red Planet would be fit for human habitation. All that’s left is patience. Generations and generations of patience.

Based on this plan, McKay estimates that we could fully terraform Mars in about 100,000 years.

There are efforts currently under way to study how we might introduce extremophile bacteria and hardy plants to the Martian environment, once the process of warming is under way.



The EXPOSE-R experiment, seen from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

The EXPOSE experiments were a collection of crates filled with different bacteria, lichens, fungi and seeds that were attached to the outside of the International Space Station and left exposed for months at a time. Scientists wanted to determine if microbes could withstand the punishing cold and damaging radiation of outer space. Organisms that could reawaken from a dormant stage once back on Earth could be good candidates to colonize another planet. In the first round of testing, a few organisms and seeds grew and reproduced once they returned to Earth — namely those that were shielded from solar radiation. Organisms placed in a simulated Martian environment in the experiment did even better.


Could humans live on Mars? All you need to know about settling the Red Planet.

This experiment showed that there are Earthly organisms that could theoretically survive on another planet. McKay notes that EXPOSE was designed to identify organisms could survive in space, not necessarily organisms that could populate another planet. Still, the research reveals the kinds of microbes that might thrive on an otherwise inhospitable planet. Part of the second round of the experiment, EXPOSE-R2, just returned from the ISS in March along with Scott Kelly. The results of that experiment should come out in the fall.

Making Our Own Microbes


(Credit: isak55/Shutterstock)

Instead of looking for Martian-ready microbes that already exist on Earth, scientists could someday build them. A group of scientists funded by DARPA is working on compiling a genetic library that they describe as the “Google Maps of genomes”, according to Motherboard. The database would allow researchers to quickly find genes that encode for useful characteristics from a database of different organisms. In this way, they could pick and choose from multiple genomes to create a microbe that possesses resistance to cold, the ability to thrive in low-pressure environments and the capacity to produce its own food, among other things — all attributes needed to colonize Mars.

Having the genetic code for these characteristics at hand would allow researchers to use CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques to create an organism that combines a host of useful characteristics into one microbe. While we don’t know if any one microorganism on Earth could survive on another planet, by picking and choosing from multiple genomes, we could, perhaps, engineer one that does.

It’s All in the Dome

Instead of changing a whole planet, why not just terraform a few choice locations? This idea, called para-terraforming, would use large domes to enclose a parcel of land that could be engineered for sustainable habitation. Plants grown inside would provide both food and oxygen, supported by bacteria and microbes that would synthesize the chemicals necessary to support life.

An Indiana-based company called Space Hardware Optimization Technology (SHOT) has proposed such a concept, supported by funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, and is working to develop technologies needed to bring the idea to fruition. SHOT hopes to one day send a test environment to Mars, filled with all of the organisms and systems needed to sustain life. It would take the form of a small dome, rooted in Martian soil, that would become a life raft of sorts for the microbes inside. It’s basically the 100,000-year plan, but on a smaller scale.

Space Potatoes


(Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Another NASA project comes straight out of the Mark Watney playbook: expose plants we grow on earth to simulated Martian conditions. In collaboration with Lima’s International Potato Center (CIP), the researchers are attempting to grow 100 different varieties of potato in soil that is analogous to that found on Mars. They are hoping to find plant varieties that are well adapted to the Martian climate, and figure out how to cultivate plants in bleak environments. Potatoes were an easy choice because they are both calorie-dense and grow in harsh, dry conditions similar to those on Mars. There are also an apparently unlimited number of ways to cook them — useful for staving off the monotony of eating the same brown tuber every single day.

The Phoenix lander in 2008 found that the dirt on the Red Planet contains magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride — all nutrients that plants need to grow. Proving that this step is feasible is a major hurdle for potential off-planet inhabitants to clear. Any colonies on other worlds will need to be self-sufficient, so colonists will need to alter the environment significantly enough that large-scale farming is possible. In case Martian soil proves to be barren, researchers are also exploring other methods of growing crops, such as aeroponics, or growing plants in a moist enclosure without dirt.

Creating a Feedback Loop

NASA is also testing the limits of Earth’s foliage in a separate experiment high in the mountains in Mexico. McKay serves as the project’s senior advisor, and he says it is an initial exploration of how plants cope with extreme environments. Scientists will place several species of trees and plants in insulated domes above the tree line where they wouldn’t otherwise survive.

They hope that sheltering the trees will “trigger a sort of a feedback where the organisms get going and they enrich the soil and they create conditions that are more favorable for life, which allows the organisms to continue growing even if we remove the domes,” says McKay.

Such a process would likely be instrumental to terraforming Mars, where the alterations would have to proceed in a series of small steps, each increasing the capacity of the planet to support life.

“As you’re warming up Mars, initially it will all have to be artificial,” says McKay. “But, at some point, it gets warm enough that you can put in plants, simple hardy plants, and at some point it gets warm enough that you can put in trees.”

And the process continues from there, slowly introducing greenhouse gases and breathable elements to the atmosphere, all in the hopes of creating a planet where humans could safely step outside on a Martian evening and look back fondly at our blue-green homeland.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars, space exploration
  • Uncle Al

    One megaton nuclear is 10^15 calories. Mars’ polar temp is about -100 °C. Specific enthalpies of ice and water are 0.49 and 1 cal/g-°C near enough. Ice enthalpy of fusion is 79.72 cal/g. To raise 1 tonne of polar ice to 1 tonne of water at 20 °C,

    (10^6)[(100)(0.49)] + [79.72)] + [(20)(1)] = 1.4872×10^8 calories
    (10^15 cal)/(1.487×10^8 cal/tonne) = 6.7 million tonnes, or a cube 189 meters on side, 0.00067 km^3, 0.00016 mi^3.

    Mars’ ice caps total 3.2 million km^3. One then requires 4.8 billion megatons to melt them at 100% efficiency. NASA must initiate hugely expensive studies to terraform Mars! Uncle Al requests a piddling $50K/year for a 10 year contract to say and do nothing, plus 20% annual performance bonuses.

    • zlop

      How are you going to keep the oceans from freezing?
      Insulate them with Styrofoam at night?
      Perhaps space mirrors?

  • Allen Howell

    But Mars has no fluid core, no magnetic field, and thus no planetary “Van Allen” style shield to protect the surface from radiation …. and it would be reeeeely hard to build such a shield. That’s a good way to fry anything you attempt to grow there, from microbes to plants to mammals ….. even if you could create an atmosphere they would be under constant bombardment from space.

    • zlop

      “But Mars has no fluid core, no magnetic field”
      Build a superconducting magnet around the planet,

      • olsondavid

        Take a science class

        • zlop

          “Take a science class”
          A while ago, I calculated the energy in the required magnetic field. Someone else arrived at similar number.

          • olsondavid

            There is no such magnet technology to apply to a planetary scale. And obviously, even if your numbers are correct, which I doubt (I’m a physicist and haven’t tried to calculate it myself), there’s no way to power such a beast. We were at the limits of our technology to build the LHC, which is only 17 km in circumference.

          • zlop

            “even if your numbers are correct, which I doubt”

            Instead of insulting, appealing to your arrogant authority. Try and think how it could be done.

          • Brian Shea

            You take a science, enineering and an economics class. Its hostile. We in the US have to depend on the european and the russians to get us up to that junk pile of a space station floating around doing what? We have a corrupt do nothing congress that do not care anytime soon. I enjoy the physics of your argument though, … but.

          • zlop

            A long time ago, at NewMars, we used to discuss transforming, trying to figure out what is plausible. There were good people around. Then, a new moderator started deleting comments and, mistakenly, wiped out the hard drive.

    • liampaulmassey

      Apparently NASA scientists may know how to create a magnetic field on mars

  • Philip Walker

    Why not use near Mars asteroids… at regular intervals brought into orbit and controlled crashes into polar ice caps… they might heat the planet and deliver the micro organisms

    • zlop

      It will not work, because CO2 will freeze out.
      If there were plants in greenhouses to make O2,
      still, surface pressure has to be maintained.

      There is a multiplying factor if more O2 is produced,
      more CO2 and O2 is brought into the atmosphere.

  • Uncle Al

    Terraform Mars by dropping a big wet comet upon it. Impact kinetic energy vaporizes all incoming. Mars obtains a warm wet atmosphere within days. Earth solar constant is 1366 W/m^2, Mars solar constant is 591 W/m^2. Some Big Thinkers can tell us how to do photosynthesis without sunlight.

    • zlop

      “big wet comet” will not do.
      A dense atmosphere has to be maintained.
      Mars needs a gas that does not freeze out.

      • Caleb Hubbell

        I’d be more concerned about an atmosphere being deteriorated by the solar wind than it “freezing out”.
        Freezing out isn’t a problem, that’s what greenhouse gases are for.

        • zlop

          “Freezing out isn’t a problem,

          that’s what greenhouse gases are for”?

          All atmospheres warm the surface.
          No matter if green, blue or colorless.

          Deep valley, where the top is at the same
          pressure, is the expedient place to start.

  • zlop

    “Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, has suggested we nuke
    the polar ice caps on Mars to unlock liquid water and release clouds of CO2 that would thicken the atmosphere and warm the planet.”?

    Elon does not understand that, Mars is not warm for lack of CO2.

    • TomD

      Please elaborate. The amount of CO2 is very thin.

      • zlop

        “The amount of CO2 is very thin.”
        There is a lot of frozen out CO2. Unlike Earth,
        insufficient sunlight to maintain all of it as a gas.

        You would need gases such as N2, O2, Argon

  • TomD

    What about the peroxides and perchlorates that are suspected to be in the soil?

  • TomD

    Potatoes are not a bad idea. Prior to the Potato Famine, the Irish had the best nutrition in Europe, thanks to potatoes and buttermilk.

    • zlop

      Artificially pressurized greenhouses,
      with 10 meters of water on the roof, to grow plants and fish?

  • zlop

    Powered by lapse exploitation, supplementing sunshine.
    Practical Martian colonies will exploit very deep alleys.

    Mars atmosphere lapses at 3.71 / 0.791 = 4.69°K/kilometer
    Can a 15 kilometer valley be dug out?

  • Jim

    The biggest problem getting any terra-forming to work is that Mars isn’t massive enough to keep a suitable atmosphere. We’d need to bulk it up a lot. Maybe that crashing of a sizable moon into Mars idea would help.

  • Stephen

    Let’s go to the moon & LaGrange Point asteroids first; that makes Mars transit easier. UV will be tough…

  • Mihajlo Filipovic (Fil)

    How about leaving Mars well alone?
    We can’t even bring some sort of logical order in our behavior where we are, let alone attempt to bring ur evil habits elsewhere. Face it, humans are not benevolent, nor responsible, nor blessed with long enough attention span to follow such vision.
    We are aggressive (imagining there is no autochtonous life just because we can’t recognize it), greedy (few will want to “rule” even if it destroys all other efforts), stupid (about not comprehending that all other places are not the way they are for nothing), and above all destructive to our ambient and ourselves.
    To top it all, we allow superstitions of all kinds play lottery with our very existence, science and knowlege be damned!
    Humans do not need new planets. What humans need is less of “qualities” that make us think more about expansion than how to use Earth better. In other words, make greed criminal and punishable, and in several generations we may be ready for some progress (other than petty electronics and ad hoc politics).

    • Jher

      Our Universe doesn’t give life meaning, but life gives our Universe meaning.

      As far as we know, we are the only things that give the universe it’s meaning.

      It’s simply the reality of the situation.

      Humanity has it’s faults. Try to be better, that’s your part. If you can, if any of us can, that’s progress.

      7.125 billion; we couldn’t be singular minded even if we wanted to.

      It’s a tortoise one way or another, let’s inspire the future. I believe it’s a race we’ll win, do you?

      Optimism versus pessimism, I think it means a lot.

      • Mihajlo Filipovic (Fil)

        Keywords would be “as far as we know” , also “we are the only”… which I think is not so. In some very old literature it was said among other things that “all planets and stars are populated”, which is their purpose.
        Of course, like here, those are populated in a way that suits local conditions, e.g. local population is based upon local materials, stands local temperatures, and so exists in ways not possible in some other places.
        The fact that these forms of life are extremely different from what we know does not give us right to disrupt their environment (i.e. terraform it), even if we were able to recognize such life.
        And from our own history we know what treatment humans give “the others”, building our destructive “civilisation” to places that managed very well when we first encountered these others.
        Remember Native Americans, Inuit, aborigins and others? The harbingers of our “civilization” made sure these did not survive in ways or numbers that would be competitive. And bringing religions via fire and sword did not hide the fact that the quest was all about gold and other “valuables”.
        Let’s forget about optimism and pessimism for a moment, just as long as it takes to admit that, too many times in history, the “civilized” proved to have about the same understanding and/or mercy as, say, locusts.
        But “history teaches us that no-one has ever learned anything from history”.
        I’m sorry… don’t really want to quench enthusiasm… but there are ways to be more productive on Earth, and not only in producing more hungry mouths.
        But that theme, huge as it is, would be too much of a SciFi, mainly because of some sorry group of greedy people that won’t ever let it become reality.

  • okiejoe

    How about a Dyson Sphere? It would hold the atmosphere in, trap solar heat, shield the surface from some radiation and it’s at least as practical as 4.8 billion megatons.

    • zlop

      Dyson Sphere would likely to be a large
      number of inhabited, solar powered satellites.
      That would take millions of years to construct?

  • Brian Shea

    Mars cannot be transformed into a paradise. Terraforming Mars is not a practical solution. Its core is solid, no magnetic field substantial enough to protect it from the solar wind etc. Our efforts should be put to mining minerals from asterroids and protecting the oasis that earth really is. Lets go back to the moon to learn more and gather He3 and do a limited amount of other mining there not to cause it to wobble more through mass loss. If you want to go to mars lets first build space stations in the proper Lagrange points so the explorers could make stops. for supplies ect, and not be sent on a death mission. Lets space hop there!

    • zlop

      Moon is nearby and easier to utilize.
      Mars might not become a convenient colony until technology advances and self replicating robots prepare the way.

    • TomD

      I tend to agree on Mars, but the absence of the magnetic field is not really a problem. If it is possible to increase the atmosphere pressure on Mars for human habitability then is is possible to continually replenish that atmosphere during solar wind losses. One logically leads to the other. The big problem is the original effort, the first ‘if’.

  • RDWebster

    This statement is absolute rubbish: “There’s one solution to terraforming that makes sense when you work out the numbers and it’s something that we know how to do,” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “And that’s warming the planet by greenhouse gases. That’s basically how we’re warming up the Earth.”

    There is absolutely no validated scientific evidence that humanity’s impact on “greenhouse gases” is changing climate. None. Not one scientific paper has ever discerned the human component to what is entirely natural climate variability. Not one.

    Indeed, it is impossible to detect any difference between 50 years of climate change at the beginning of the 20th century and 50 years of climate change at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.

    Perhaps we would do better to research the real causes of natural climate change before we merely assume that a small increase in atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuel burning has any meaningful impact on natural climate variability.

    • zlop

      NASA has to do Muslim outreach, Rainbow outreach
      and CO2 warming. The Talmud in the CO2 deception
      is that, all gases warm the surface.

    • James38

      Jaysus, RDWebster, you are either scientifically illiterate, or you are a paid troll, or ?

      No evidence of greenhouse gases changing climate? That is a colossal whopper. You know nothing about CO2 and its effects, for starters.

      Ever hear of Svante Arrhenius? No? Look him up. He knew what you don’t know, and he knew it in the late 1800’s.

      • Pete Johnson

        So where is the evidence? Lots of assumptions, very little proof. All I see is alarmists who belittle people who don’t swallow their BS.

  • Brian Shea

    Also no moon big enough to keep the core warm enough over a period of time creating a magnetic field, if there was ever a technology grand enough to reactivate the core. The planet also bobbles to far from a realistic angle, to allow life to diversify from extremofiles. I myself would never want to live in a dome protecting me from the outside hostile environment.

    • zlop

      ” I myself would never want to live in a dome
      protecting me from the outside hostile environment.”

      People live in secured apartments, inside shopping malls.
      Outside are terrorists running around.

      Mole Men, digging deep to exploit temperature lapses,
      will be able to colonize Mars. Large greenhouses on top.

  • zlop

    All atmospheres warm the surface,
    even on a planet sized object, in intergalactic space.

  • Federico Jose

    Why not to start “terraforming” the multiple desert areas in the earth first? That would be a good initial test of this theory.

    • zlop

      To survive damage, a large greenhouse made of hexagonal
      cells. For radiation reduction, 10 meters of water on top.

      For safety, people would spend most of their time
      inside caves. Light pipes to make it feel like outside.

      Deep valley is needed for Lapse exploitation power.

      Self replicating Robots, that do not evolve to kill humans?

  • zlop

    Lapse exploitation power is
    crucial for long term Mars outpost sustainability.
    (different gases have different lapses –run a heat engine)

  • suztv

    Wouldn’t matter how much water we released or even how much Greenhouse gasses we put on Mars. Not only does it NOT have a large enough magnetic shield (to protect against solar radiation and magnetic storms) it also doesn’t have a stabilizing moon (the two it has aren’t large enough to make it’s axis wobble less crazy, which plays into the fact it doesn’t have an atmosphere), and the gravity which is less than half that of Earth also prevents the atmosphere from forming or staying – it would be a waste of time. The atmosphere would be depleted over a period of time unless we continuously kept it up. We would have to figure out how to re-ignite the planetary core (so that a magnetic shield could be in place), get a larger and more robust satellite to stabilize the axis, introduce not only green house gasses but the entire range of gasses that make up our atmosphere – one of the most important being the upper atmosphere and Ozone. Mars is a lost cause because the satellite and core issue make it improbable to achieve. The last time I checked – we haven’t moved any asteroids nor have we been able to master the inner core of our own planet.

    Being that we have a hard time taking care of this atmosphere on Earth – I seriously doubt there would be much value in terra-forming Mars unless there was something cataclysmic happening here on Earth (comet or asteroid, plague etc). Or if Mars somehow had a lot of rare-earth magnets or gold or something like that. It’s great to dream and consider the idea but since we’ve never been there and probably won’t EVER go unless forced to – it’s just “pie in the sky” dreaming.

    I’m guessing the commercial ventures into space are the ones who want to do the terra-forming so they can create a resort or something? Or are there minerals that are worth the expense of doing the terra-forming?

  • T. Doucett

    Well… nice observations…truth is…all this crash and bash…would knock earth out of orbit. Starting with the core of Mars would destabilize all the plants. Next, if we F up earth and its orbit….WE ARE DOOMED and DEAD. All this nuke crap is just a fire cracker gone rogue. Duh space is a vacuum and a nuke would not do anything without gravity. Like one person said ” Humans are Stupid and Greedy”. Maybe in the next century and in another Solar System we could find another planet; but we dam well can’t make one. The powers that be..have been here since the beginning of time. But the one thing we dumb humans fail to realize, the bible is no fiction. That true science is no fiction either; but man’s dreams can be fiction and Star Trek like. But man will kill itself for sure with the attitudes of grander and privilege; you feel me now.

    AVATAR and other movies like it show us who we really are, most humans don’t respect anything or anyone. Westworld proves like any thing man made; its faulty including us. Between fear, death, greed, ignorance and prosperity we come in dead last as a species. As Tupac said, “I Just Live in This World…I didn’t Make It…


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