Mars: the New Earth?

In a previous post, I outlined a proposed mission profile for, and some of the realities involved in, a one-way manned mission to Mars: rovers and robots would establish a base camp before the crew arrived. The astronauts would receive continuous shipments of supplies form Earth, but would have to rely on onsite greenhouses for the majority of their food and oxygen. Like I said, the proposal is a radical one; the astronauts would have no means to return home at any point throughout the mission. But they would be the first step in a long-term plan to develop a human outpost on the red planet.

The proposed mission itself is, I think, difficult to justify. More difficult, however, are the realities of living on an inhospitable planet for the rest of your life. In the case of Mars, would it be easier to alter the planet to make it fit for human habitation instead of bringing a habitat in tow? What should come first, terraforming or inhabiting? (Previous image: Terra Nova by David A. Hardy depicts a terraformed Mars rise as seen from one of its moons.)

Above any other, our humanity is the strongest factor our expansion throughout the solar system; our natural inclination to move and discover new lands, to know more about who we are and where we come from, as well as the instinct to preserve the species. While the human will to know more about ourselves is understandable as a natural curiosity, the latter ‘preservation of the species’ as a rational for human migration to Mars seems too flawed to be the prime driving factor. Who are we to decide we are worth preserving?

Proponents for the colonization of Mars, as well as many champions for one-way proposals, point out additional factors that are equally driving if less universal in their appeal. Rationales include a challenge for humanity, a wealth of knowledge to be gained about a new planet, the economic gains (the planet is all land, a very valuable commodity), its central location in the solar system, as well as its similarity to Earth (it’s day is slightly longer and gravity slightly weaker, but nothing we couldn’t adjust to). (Right is artist Paul DiMare’s concept of a human mission to Mars.)

The long-term establishment of a human outpost on Mars would serve multiple purposes. Initially used a jumping off point for further missions into the solar system, the establishment could eventually serve as a refuge for humans. (The same has been proposed on the Moon – it is a much closer target, but lacks the environment necessary to provide the crew with a means to live off the land while the base is built.)

But if Mars were to become a true refuge for humanity or even a habitable resupply and launch point for future mission, small habitable quarters wouldn’t be enough. The planet would need to become as close an analogue to Earth as possible. It would need a life-supporting atmosphere and a shield from solar activity.

A new, man-friendly Mars could be achieved through terraforming: the redevelopment of a planet to make it more Earth-like. One of the more succinct and well-presented terraforming proposals I found comes from the Canadian Terraformers Society. (In true Canadian diplomatic style, the proposal foresees the participation of a host of countries including Ukraine, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US.) They propose a simple 12-step plan to turn not only Mars, but Venus and our Moon as well, into proper human habitats.

Artist's concept of the stages of terraforming Mars.

Their plan is as follows. First, develop a heavy lifting launch vehicle to lift large loads into Earth orbit. The vehicle’s main charge will be to put (either whole or in sections) a self-sustaining ship in orbit to serve as a starting point – this is step 2. From there, step three is to build an interplanetary vehicle for the exploration of inner planets as well as aiding in building future bases on these planets. Step four uses this interplanetary vehicle to explore the inner solar system (Moon, Mars and Venus).

At this point the process gets trickier. Step five is to siphon off CO2 (carbon dioxide) and N2 (nitrogen) from Venus’ upper atmosphere and store it for transport. Step six delivers the stored CO2 and N2 to Mars and Moon via particle beams. Step seven brings water into the equation, which is mined from asteroids in the asteroid belt. Step eight delivers the mined water to Mars, the Moon, and Venus.

Step nine begins the process in earnest with the exportation of bio-material from Earth. Step ten uses this bio-material to fertilize Mars, the Moon, and Venus. Step eleven is the transplantation of biomes from earth. The process ends with step twelve, the colonization of new worlds. Simple!

In the case of Mars, much of the rationale behind the terraforming proposals come from the belief that the planet once had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on the surface; that it was, in short, similar to Earth. It is considered feasible, then, to return it to its former state. It just needs to be warmed up by the addition of gases!

Artist's concept of what a flattened out map of a terraformed mars might look like.

Infusing Mars’ current scant atmosphere with ammonia could make it considerably thicker. Adding hydrogen would also be beneficial; it would react with the carbon dioxide in the current atmosphere to yield water and methane, the latter of which could aid the greenhouse effect of the planet.

Giving the planet a thicker atmosphere would trap more heat from the sun, but additional warming measure might be necessary to speed up the process. To this end, ultra-thin mirrors placed in Martian orbit would increase the insulation around the planet. This would vaporize carbon dioxide and water, adding support to the greenhouse effect with the addition of greenhouse gasses.

Another way to heat the planet is with microwaves. As the Canadian Terraformers write, it is possible to “place a microwave array, powered by solar cells, nuclear reactor, or a combination of the two, into geosynchronous orbit,” providing the planet with a more active heating element.

A third proposal for heating Mars would be to crash its inner moon, Phobos, into the surface. While this would only generate a moderate amount of heat, it would serve the all-important function of removing Phobos as a hazard for a terraformed Mars. As the planet’s atmosphere thickens, the orbital period of Phobos will slow. It will smash into the terraformed Mars anyways, so we might as well remove the danger before it kills anyone.

These steps towards heating and atmospheric development would spur the development of an Earth-like planet, at least for a little while. It’s possible that Mars’ lack of magnetic field (something that no group proposes creating through artificial means) and consequent bombardment by undiluted solar rays would gradually destroy the atmosphere, returning it to its former state – the state it’s in now. But it’s also possible that by the time Mars is ready for human occupancy that the sun will have grown too hot for Earth. In that case, Mars will be ready and waiting for an influx of human settlers. (Pictured is an artist’s concept of astronauts exploring one of Mars’ canyons, before terraforming or human colonization.)

While the lack of magnetic field will pose problems for the Martian atmosphere in the long term, some of the short-term dangers of an unprotected planet will be mitigated with the addition of a thicker atmosphere. The atmosphere will act as a buffer from solar radiation and violent solar activity, similar to how Venus’ surface is protected by its thick atmosphere.

The prospect of terraforming Mars and creating a sort of ‘second Earth’ is both romantic and fascinating. But there’s also a negative aspect that I find inescapable. What if there is some life on Mars, a primitive life that we just haven’t found yet, and we introduce an ‘artificial’ atmosphere, effectively killing the true Martians. What will be the criteria by which we declare, once and for all, that Mars is truly devoid of life? And what if Mars turns out like the deep oceans: seemingly barren, but eventually revealing a whole world to be discovered?

Also tied into terraforming proposals is the notion that our reshaping the solar system to suit our needs is a selfish act. Isn’t turning Mars (as well as Venus and the Moon for that matter) into Earth-like planets impressing ourselves too much in the natural universe? Are we not, by reshaping the solar system to fit our needs, just playing God? I can’t seem to separate these ideas of reshaping to cosmos to aid in our migration from the apparent need to return man to his previous central position in the cosmos.

From the ancient Greeks forward, men have been trying to secure for themselves a central position in the universe:  But as science progressed, this was increasingly a lost cause. Humans are not central to the universe – Earth, our solar system, even our galaxy holds no special position in the greater universe. Our time frame on Earth isn’t remarkable. We were not created for a special purpose or by some divine creator. We are, as Darwin pointed out, simply arrogant enough to think we are. (Above is an artist’s concept of astronauts exploring thesurface of Mars. Note the similarity to classic exploration paintings, such as Humboldt’s painting of Mount Chimborazo.)

But man’s desire for centrality is still evident in the language of – forces of gravity are described as attractive, and we set time by the rising and setting of the sun rather than the rotation of the Earth. These proposals for manned expansion throughout the solar system seem to be a very awkward way of clinging to the past notions of humans as a special species, one that should be able to beat the game of survival of the fittest. So many of the arguments in favour of manned spaceflight verge on playing God.

A much less romantic viewpoint exists: that we’re not particularly special, and that we don’t really need to expand throughout the solar system. Kurt Vonnegut, while neither scientist nor strictly a science fiction writer, very eloquently expresses this viewpoint in a number of his novels. I recently came across one such example that I find particularly interesting and relevant to the proposal of man’s expansion to Mars and beyond.

Those familiar with Vonnegut will also be familiar with Kilgour Trout, the fictional science fiction writer who makes an appearance in a number of Vonnegut novels. In Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, Trout makes an appearance as the author of a short story entitled “The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore”. (Pictured: Vonnegut.)

In the story, a race of intelligent threads of energy aspires to find a mortal, self-replicating life form capable of spreading throughout the universe. The Elders of the race meet on the planet Tralfamadore to discuss how to achieve this end and determine that the only practical life form that could travel across the universe would have to be small and durable, hitching rides from asteroids. In short, germs. But even the most resilient germs couldn’t withstand a cosmic journey. The elders noticed humans on Earth, a seemingly intelligent species with big brains. Perhaps humans would present germs with the opportunities to strengthen themselves in advance of their cosmic journey.

Trout proceeds in the story to justify all human actions as rooted in unconscious desires implanted in us by the Elders – experimenting with physics and chemistry ensured that the germs would experience the worst kids of torture and develop accordingly. If a germ could survive a nuclear bomb, that stain would be that much more prepared for its cosmic journey. In short, life on Earth was purely to ensure germs would be ready to ship out when the time came.

Particularly poignant is Trout’s explanation of why germs are the ‘chosen’ life form. Humans, he writes, are too bulky, complicated, and needy to survive any kind of spaceflight. In his own words: “How could all that meat, needing so much food and water and oxygen, and with bowel movements so enormous, expect to survive a trip of any distance whatsoever through the limitless void of outer space? It was a miracle that such ravenous and cumbersome giants could make a roundtrip for a 6-pack to the nearest grocery store.” This is not altogether a bad point.

While Trout’s (Vonnegut’s) story is of course purely fantastical, it does raise an interesting alternate, if deeply cynical, viewpoint. Maybe we aren’t the chosen species meant to make our mark across the universe. Perhaps we should leave Mars (and Venus and the Moon) alone. Visit them, but don’t try and turn them into something else. As Vonnegut ends Hocus Pocus: Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.


Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

Kurt Vonnegut. Hocus Pocus. 1990.

Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot.

“Terraformers Society of Canada”: This page includes an animation outlining the 12-step terraforming process.


“About Mars”, NASA:

“Why Colonize Mars? – Red Colony”:

“Mars Planetarium – Home”:


  • Adam says:

    Personally I think we’re already working for the interests of microbes – think of all our mitochondria, which were once independent bacteria, or the multitude of retroviruses in our genomes.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert P Reibold, Adam Stone. Adam Stone said: Mars: the New Earth? | Vintage Space […]

  • […] you thought the proposals for a one-way trip to Mars were bizarre, what about proposals to terraform Mars – to turn it into a second Earth? More science fiction than fact? Perhaps. But the Canadian […]

  • […] wildly fantastical theories to paint Mars as a probable second Earth – long before proposals of terraforming and […]

  • […] in eventual sample return missions from the red planet. One-way human missions, colonization, and terraforming Mars, however, remain science fiction. At least for the time […]

  • Jimmy says:

    While I would agree that our existence, our unfounded and perhaps ultimately irresponsible ideals about space colonization are the result of an immature species applying importance to itself through arrogance, there is another factor involved. Humanity is dangerous. We’ve created a nuclear arsenal capable of completely obliterating all life on earth. Our importance, and therefore our responsibility to the persistence of life, came about in the mid 1940s when we developed the means to artificially destroy ourselves and our planet with it. If re-creating earth-like environments on barren worlds ensures the survival of all cataloged plant, animal, and microbial life while we proceed with our progressively dangerous and uneven series of events, I find it hard to view ourselves as simply arrogant, but also necessary. If we are to find any importance in our existence, it should be geared towards the persistence of life given our means (and apparent readiness) to destroying it.

  • Dylan Lapointe says:

    Who’s changing what? Changing our “natural inclination to move and discover new lands” doesn’t seem less extreme than changing Mars when using your scale:

    “Humans are not central to the universe – Earth, our solar system, even our galaxy holds no special position in the greater universe. Our time frame on Earth isn’t remarkable.”

    Emotion shouldn’t come into play when discussing the PROCESS of Natural Selection. Of course humans weren’t “chosen” but if you want to start mourning the neanderthals that’s up to you.

  • Naturally you’ll scoff but Mars is already populated with underground bases. In ancient times it had a breathable atmosphere but the entire planet was devastated by war.

  • An interesting read. Of course, given our status as simple evolved life forms, whether we were chosen for something is irrelevant. WE choose. Since staying on earth leads only to extinction, it seems rather foolish not to get to work finding new homes.

  • cbmcwilliams says:

    The recommended reading list is in dire need of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy

  • […] a previous post, I made the comment that I don’t necessarily think humans ought to colonize other planets; at […]

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    Your article is flawed in so many ways that one could have a full-time job dissecting it properly and showing all of the incongruities and absurdities in it. Which brings me to another point–perhaps you do need a full time job.
    Continue to play with “twitter” and “facebook.”
    Maybe you should concentrate on empty lot next to your home first with regards to “terraforming.”
    Your essay does have a comedic value though.

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    I noticed the “Terraformers” website, in true Canadian style, is already gone.
    They probably realized that they were in fact working with fiction.

    Appreciate your “moderating” my brief note and leaving it!

    Some thoughts on the first paragraph.

    “The realities” of a manned mission to Mars! I suppose you only do mean “some” indeed. We in fact know very few of these “realities” Amy, if any. At this point in time we can’t even get to the moon!

    “Radical” proposal. Really! Sure. Especially the “Terraforming” machinations. No doubt a “long-term plan”–when do you think we will send some well qualified “volunteers” to the “red planet” on a one way mission? Will they have a CV as long as yours?
    Maybe China will be the first one with this one way thing–they seem to have an easier time finding volunteers.

    Are you aware that it is, in fact, our 23.5 degrees of tilt that give us our seasons; i.e. our wonderful summers and winters? That alone shows that a little closer to the sun we would be too hot, and a little further from the sun we would freeze. Do you happen to know our average distance from the sun and the average distance from the Sun for Mars? Easy to get–“google” it like everyone else does (and you no doubt). This knowledge is enough to shed unsurmountable difficulty on the rest of your essay. I will try to go through each of the paragraphs for you and highlight the amusing absurdities in it.

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    Is this mission difficult to justify? Well, right now we are not even “traveling” to the moon. Do we need to go into the fact that no nation on the face of the planet has enough cash to even take care of the problems here on our blue planet? “alter the planet”???!!! We cannot alter rubbish control here, and we don’t know what to do with refuse alone and now we are going to alter a “planet”! We cannot alter the length of a day, or the length of a year. We cannot even alter our own satellite, which is relatively close–and we are discussing whether we should alter a planet or bring a “habital in tow” to this other “inhospitable” location–about which, we know experientially practically nothing–this so-called “Curiosity” notwithstanding. Next thing you know, someone is going to be talking about altering our tilt as we travel on our plane around the big ball of fire. Amusing second paragraph.

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    “Our humanity is the strongest factor our [sic] expansion throughout the solar system”–strange, I thought it was our very humanity which is destroying or otherwise misusing this here planet!
    On the other hand, might as well move on and disrupt another planet. Is that the reasoning? “throughout the solar system:” gee. What plans we have! I imagine that after “terraforming” Mars, we will also “terraform” the remaining planets! Awesome.

    “our natural inclination to move and discover new lands, to know more about who we are and where we come from,”–somewhat against the grain today.We even want to get rid of “Columbus day” for what he did. I am sure you are aware of that.

    “as well as the instinct to preserve the species.” Excuse me. . .from what I read today and perceive, that is also an evil thing for humans to be engaged in.

    “the latter ‘preservation of the species’ as a rational for human migration to Mars seems too flawed to be the prime driving factor. Who are we to decide we are worth preserving?” If we, as the de facto masters of the earth (by decree) can’t decide that–as absurd as it sounds, what are we then supposed to be doing? Is it ok to think at all? What sort of basis do you have for writing any essays at all then? I could say, or anyone could for that matter, that not any of your conclusions are valid or otherwise worth printing. I hope that you can follow that.

    Thanks for an entertaining third paragraph.

  • Not Joe-Anzilotti says:

    Thanks for completely wasting everyone’s time in a post that’s a year and a half old! Your writing is as masterful as Bill O’Reilly’s scripts with just as much spin! I’m glad you took the time to make a complete ass out of yourself on a day that many of us in the space community are mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Neil Armstrong.

    What really blew me away, was your persistence in starting one comment, and then following up with 3 more within seven days! (Not counting your amazing rebuttal of Tom, who made quite a logical observation and response to you. But we can’t be asked to fiddle around with facts and context, can we?)

    But Joe, you really should’ve stuck with only one comment. The first one was quite the gem! Let’s take a look…

    “Your article is flawed in so many ways that one could have a full-time job dissecting it properly and showing all of the incongruities and absurdities in it. Which brings me to another point–perhaps you do need a full time job.”
    —–Fantastic observation. Yes, Amy really should have a full time job. You definitely come across as the expert in this arena as you are pulling up a post that’s over a year and a half old for no obvious reason. But let’s go on…

    “Continue to play with “twitter” and “facebook.”
    —– Ouch. Such a sick burn. I’m really glad that there are no major journalists or news agencies using these infantile infrastructures, because that would make you look like a complete dolt!

    “Maybe you should concentrate on empty lot next to your home first with regards to “terraforming.”
    —– Fair point. Perhaps you should become a biologist/geologist and show her where she goes wrong! I mean, we all know that one’s opinion trumps testable facts, but still. That’d really put her in her place!

    “Your essay does have a comedic value though.”
    —– If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about reading Amy’s articles over the years, she’s totally doing it “for the lulz”. Your comments have proven to be a *GOLD MINE* for comedy too! Watch out Louis C.K., we’ve got Joe Anzilotti in the house and he’s just UNLEASHED the comedic fury upon the interwebz!

    Yours truly, madly, deeply,
    Not Joe-Anzilotti

    • Joe Anzilotti says:

      Now that you were able to rest and be a little more objective:
      If I know your name it would make it easier for me to show appropriate etiquette.
      At any rate, your essay is much more fun and entertaining. I had mentioned that I was going through Ms. Amy’s essay paragraph by paragraph but perhaps I should go through your amiable essay instead.
      If I had a “blog” and were writing things, I would welcome the critique of anyone, as long as they would mention their real names when they proceeded to tear apart what I had written. So as you can see, I am helping Amy. She probably understands that.
      As far as I can tell, Amy did not mention that I cannot read any of her essays that were older than a certain given date. Did I miss something?
      I did not, by the way, waste anyone’s time by any of my remarks. You at least appear to have enjoyed them, and Tom also appreciated my thoughts.
      I know that I am at least as masterful as O’Reilly, but on the other hand I do not employ any spin–it is all facts and truth. You don’t have to agree.
      Further, your calumniation just shows that you have a long way to go in order to use the English language effectively.
      With respect to Neil Armstrong–I respect him a great deal. My writing on that day had nothing to do with Neil’s passing–how can you even bring that up? What a sordid thought process. The passing of Neil is a great loss in fact. I will continue to respect him as I always have.
      If you are nice I would be glad to discuss each one of your mesmerizing remarks.
      Have a great day.

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    If you used your name it would be helpful.
    I see that English is not a language that you have mastered yet.
    I can see that I am wasting my time.
    Your tirade is even more entertaining than the other essay.
    Thanks for the objective thoughts.
    Get some rest.

  • Joe Anzilotti says:

    Paragraph 4 (gave it some time since my last report, as your unnamed friend above Amy, seemed to be upset at my regularity)
    “Proponents for the colonization of Mars,”–these being the guys with money or without money? Just curious whether you have the “stats” there. “The champions for one-way proposals,” would that be the Chinese where “volunteers” for such an endeavor would not be a problem? Of course, I suppose that a monetary incentive for this one-way trip, paid out to the family perhaps, of the willing guinea, would be very successful in arranging a nice list of explorers in almost any country you care to name.
    “Rationales include a challenge for humanity”–actually I agree here, we do need more challenges. There simply aren’t enough to go around yet. With the rising oceans and other National Geographic delineated problems on our rock, lets add the challenge of creating an ocean in Mars by “terraforming” that rock.
    A “wealth of knowledge”–certainly. Wikipedia could really go for that. I can see Harvard placing a “satellite” campus there to help harvest this knowledge and catalog it. A real boom for the student loan industry. Of course “economic gains” is a factor here–who can argue with that? I can just see your friendly and trustworthy real estate agents being zealous about partitioning the property there–being that “the planet is all land, and a very valuable commodity.” The handy “central location,” makes it easy to get there–only an average 141 million miles from the sun (average of 48 million miles from the “blue planet”). We already have a few gadgets on the surface!
    Now to be honest, “as well as its similarity to Earth” with respect to Mars, and “nothing we couldn’t adjust to.” I cannot say that I agree with that. That must have been an attempt at humor? I am not going to say anything on this, one way or the other until I see and hear about the first “volunteers” attempting to “get adjusted”–I hope Amy that you can understand that.
    Hope you don’t mind my reading older posts Amy. Your unnamed friend above appeared to incline towards no one reading or commenting on “older” posts. I could not figure that out.
    Have a great labor day weekend.

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