A NASA scientist has looked into the problem of making Mars habitable and suggests that it can be done through terraforming. Unfortunately, to get Mars to Earth-like conditions like those that prevail today will take an effort that lasts longer than results achieved in just the first handful of generations of terraforming colonists.
Chris McKay, a NASA astrobiologist, tells Popular Science that Mars could be terraformed by its colonists to produce mild temperatures within approximately a century. But one would still have to wear an oxygen mask. To make Mars habitable to the point where humans are able to breathe the atmosphere without aid of oxygen masks will take an estimated 10,000 times as long to create and maintain.
According to McKay's timeline, the first colonists to land on Mars will arrive with robots capable of mining the Martian surface in search of rocks that contain the element flourine, which is necessary in the formation of PFCs (PerFluorinated Compounds), mostly non-toxic gases that are instrumental in trapping greenhouse gases on Earth. Exposing the compounds to direct Martian sunlight, where four hours equates to energy equivalent to all the nuclear weapons on Earth, will do most of the work thereafter. McKay starts his timeline in 2065, which is way behind the schedule set by colonization proponents like Elon Musk, who proposes sending colonists to Mars within the next decade, arriving, according to Space News, in 2025.
After half a century, McKay says the PFCs should have heated up Mars to the point where trapped carbon dioxide is released into the air and polar ice melts to form lakes and streams. In this environment, microbes and plants, such as those accustomed to surviving in polar regions, could survive on the planet.
After another 50 years, the skies of Mars will be bluer than Earth's. Trees can be introduced that tough it out in Earth's mountainous regions. And humans will be able to go outside without a spacesuit -- but they will still need an oxygen mask.
The next stage is a long one. To get to an atmosphere and conditions on Mars that allow humans to comfortably breathe without mechanical assistance will take another 100,000 years. After tens of millennia of plants producing oxygen, there will then be enough oxygen in the atmospheric mix for humans to breathe Martian air.
Of course, Chris McKay's terraforming timeline for Mars is contingent upon a number of factors, the least of which is the production of enough PFCs in the early colonial days to jump-start the process. But the terraforming also will be in a constant war with the harsh radiation pouring down on Mars, constantly depleting the nascent atmosphere as it forms. It will be a formidable challenge, considering Mars' lack of magnetic belts to help in protecting the planet from solar radiation.
But the timeline also works under the constraints of what is now known scientifically and what is technologically possible. Given advances in both realms that will come with time, there exists the possibility that the time needed for terraforming will be reduced somewhat, even dramatically.
McKay's thoughts on terraforming Mars may exist only as a simple exercise in possibilities, though, because another NASA scientist, Bruce Jakosky, the principal investigator for NASA and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft mission, says that without a massive infusion of carbon dioxide into the planet's already thin atmosphere, terraforming the red planet would be basically unfeasible. In fact, to realistically get the job done, Jakosky says that 10 million kilometer-sized comets made of pure carbon dioxide would have to bombard the planet to raise the temperatures enough to facilitate the terraforming of Mars.
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