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Creating a Second Planet For Humanity: Terraforming Mars

If I could ever sit down with Bill Gates, I’d tell him “Give me 10 minutes of your time and I’ll tell you how you can turn your current paragraph or two mention in history into something greater than even Alexander the Great or Ghengis Khan. Listen to me and I’ll show you how children a thousand years from now will know your name and praise your accomplishments.  They will do so because you did something almost inconceivable….you gave all of humanity a second planet to call home.  Millions of humans will wake up each morning on a planet they call home and do so knowing that you made it possible.” The answer to “How?” is through what is known as “Terraforming” and the planet is Mars.

What Is Terraforming?  The term “Terraforming” refers to the concept of changing another planet in various ways to make it hospitable to Earth life.  It would involve changing the atmospheric pressure, atmospheric composition, soil, water, etc so as to be as Earth-like as possible.  In the case of Mars, which has a very small percentage of our atmospheric needs, we would need to vastly increase the barometric pressure by initiating various types of greenhouse effects, change the soil so it is living soil capable of growing plants, etc.   Changing an entire planet would obviously be the largest project ever undertaken by mankind.

How Can It Be Done?  There are a lot of articles that will tell you that Terraforming is possible but would take a thousand years or more.  I don’t think this is true at all.  Most of the options proposed for Terraforming usually involve technology that can be used to warm the planet, build up the atmospheric pressure, etc.   Those would work and they would take a long time to do so.  And while these techniques should also be implemented, the first and most important step is the introduction of life to Mars.  This has always been perceived as a step “down the line” in Terraforming after having first completed many other steps.  But the recent confirmation of huge amounts of water locked beneath Mars surface shows that this should be the first step.  We humans like to think we’re powerful but time and again Mother Nature reminds us just how powerful she is.  We can use that power to bring life to Mars.

We can breath life into Mars and Terraform it much more quickly by introducing a wide assortment of organisms to the planet that could rapidly reproduce. In short order, there could be billions of organisms on Mars feeding, growing, reproducing and doing their part to make Mars habitable to humans. They might expelling soil-enriching waste as they feed or oxygen as they breath. And as they continue to grow in numbers, each successive generation would make it easier to introduce even more diverse and higher order life forms. We might start out with bacteria, fungus and lichens and soon be ready for worms and other more complex organisms that could speed up the creation of soil capable of supporting life.

Using Extremophiles and Genetically Modified Organisms To Speed Up Terraforming.

The first act would be introducing life forms that could survive the radiation and low atmospheric pressure currently found on Mars. That radiation and low pressure would kill almost every life form currently found on Earth.  But there are a number of Extremophile organisms on Earth that can handle those conditions (an “Extremophile” is an organism that can survive or even thrive under conditions that would kill most other lifeforms).   Some of the organisms that could be sent unmodified to Mars include the list generated by the Planetary Society for their Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, an experiment which unfortunately failed to correctly launch in 2011.  The list includes:

– Bacillus safensis: Discovered in JPL’s ‘clean’ room: Spacecraft Assembly Facility. This orgamism might already be on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity.
– Deinococcus radiodurans: This organism is extremely resistant to radiation, able to survive a dose of 5,000 Gy.
– Bacillus subtilis, strain MW01
– Bacillus subtilis, strain 168
– Haloarcula marismortui
– Methanothermobacter wolfeii: Mars Express has discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere. M. wolfeii is a methane-producing organism.
– Pyrococcus furiosus: P. furiosus thrives at about 100°C
– Fungus – Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast)
– Plantae – Arabidopsis thaliana (‘mouse-ear cress’)
– Tardigrades (‘water bears’): Tardigrades are found in mosses and lichens and feed on plant cells, algae, and small invertebrates. There are over 1,150 species of tardigrades and several could be chosen to go to Mars for colonization but Milnesium Tardigradum in particular has shown a hardiness for surviving in vacuum with high radiation exposure.

That list shows the starting point for introducing a living ecosystem to Mars but there are literally hundreds of others that could be great candidates for introduction to Mars.   The first step would be to spend a few years while your preparing launch systems to selectively breed the hardiest members of each species to maximize their extremophile characteristics to the greatest extent possible. Launch those members on landers that act as both drill stations (see below about depositing subterranean bacteria) and heater stations for surface species.

The next step would be to genetically modify species to thrive in the Mars environment.  Imagine a lichen designed to grow a hardened top that enables it to handle the cold and radiation at the poles.  Imagine a fungus designed to withstand cold and radiation that multiplies so fast you can practically see it grow.  Picture it spreading across the poles of Mars, releasing carbon dioxide in ever increasing amounts and being a food source for a variety of other modified organisms.  Dozens of types of organisms could be introduced quickly, perhaps hundreds if it turns out there are warm sections underground near volcanic activity or liquid water flows.

Terraforming from Above and Below

One of the most important step that could be taken would be to attack Mars from beneath.  We need to learn more about subsurface Mars.  It appears there are no tectonics but there are volcanoes.  Are there warm areas underground suitable for growing life?  Are there liquid water bodies underground?  These would be ideal areas for introducing life to the planet.  Release engineered bacteria and other organisms needed to start creating “living soil” underground where they can live off the water we know is there and reproduce and injecting them underground at various drill points so the organisms can be protected from radiation.  And if there is liquid water flowing underground and we don’t detect any native life in it, then that opens up huge alternatives such as introducing whole ecosystems of the type of species found in Antarctic waters.  Provide some subterranean lighting and Algae, kelp, etc could be immediately introduced without any modifications necessary!

A concurrent step, and one which should be implemented along with technology steps such as heater stations is the introduction of selectively bred surface lichen and fungi at the polar areas. These areas are known to have moisture at the surface. Ideally, the lichen would be bred/modified to handle and perhaps even feed off radiation and be modified to have an extremely high growth rate. The heater stations would be small nuclear powered stations that emit heat just like a heater lamp but at a much greater distance. These would be surface islands of life providing warmth to enable the lichens to establish themselves and spread. Some of the stations could possibly produce perfluorocarbons (PFCs) to create a high-powered greenhouse effect. The enhanced stations would be fed martian soil through telepresence-operated excavation equipment. The combined actions of the surface and subsurface organisms with the heater stations would release large amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, further enhancing the affects.

Technology Assist:  There are a lot of proposed options for using technology to Terraform Mars that could be be used concurrently with the steps listed above that would greatly enhance the ability of life to establish itself on Mars.  Triggering (possibly with nuclear explosions at key fault locations) several of the immense shield volcanoes found on Mars would release millions of tons of ash into the thin atmosphere, greatly enhancing the creation of a Greenhouse affect.   A similar affect could happen by crashing multiple asteroids into Mars but the technological know-how for this option is probably to far away to be an option.  These steps might sound extreme but they would likely speed up the thickening of a Martian atmosphere by many years and would further assist the introduced Terraforming species as they try to establish themselves and reproduce.

Getting back to our highly-unlikely hypothetical conversation with Mr. Gates, I would close by telling him that the most important thing he could do to make this happen is to not open it up for debate.  There will always be Mars purists that will demand we leave Mars uncontaminated.  Listening to them would indefinitely hold up initiating the Terraforming process.  Once the various species we send to Mars are reproducing on their own, the purists would have no argument left.  So the initial launches,  launched from international waters under a corporation filed in a country not limited by the Outer Space Treaty, eliminate the politics and start a process that cannot be stopped once started.  Get the life on Mars and once the yelling from the Mars purists is over, then we could seriously begin working on giving humanity a second home.

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