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Jim Keener's Terraforming Method

written by Jim Keener on February 03, 2003 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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Terraformed Mars.
Terraformed Mars.
Credit: James Graham and Kandis Elliot
Changing Mars into a planet with lush forests, varied plant and animal life, and a thick Nitrogen-Oxygen atmosphere is the dream, and goal, of many scientists. First proposed some 30 years ago, this dream, dubbed “terraforming,” has gained momentum in the scientific world and is now considered possible. The way we will go about terraforming is a widely debated topic. I am proposing a method that I feel, with our current technology, could work. Even though the process is simple, it will take a long time: a good century if we are lucky.

The first thing to do would be to add materials to the planet. The most necessary elements and compounds are Fluorine, Phosphorous, Nitrogen, and, depending how much water we can acquire, Hydrogen. We can add these by using comets and asteroids, fusion, or shuttles.

Asteroids of the carbonaceous class contain biological compounds (which contain Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and possibly Phosphorus and Nitrogen). Comets contain mostly Ammonia (NH3), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), and Dihydrogen Oxide (H2O). Asteroids will have to be put into a slowly degrading orbit that starts in the high atmosphere, unless terraforming planners want it to just hit the planet. Comets, which are frozen gases, can just be hurled into the atmosphere and will most likely evaporate quickly. Using a nuclear population system to move the comet or asteroid, less than 10% of the body would be used in the trek to Mars5. The propulsion system would simply use the reactor to heat the gas and force it out the back.

A nuclear fusion reactor fuses lighter elements together to create heavier ones. Large stars do this all the time, our sun, a medium class star, is still just creating mostly Helium. A fusion reactor that keeps reacting its contents, with added energy to take the place of gravity (our current, or any near term, fusion technology will not be able to sustain a reaction like the ones needed), might be able to create necessary elements (ex: Phosphorus, Fluorine, and Nitrogen). The energy would come from regular fusion reactors or fission reactors. Scientist that I have talked to say that Deuterium-Tritium reactors fusion should be ready in about 30 years. This is the first step to creating a heavy element reactor.

Unmanned shuttles that would coast from Mars to other planets and moons to collect gasses from planets and moons would allow us access to more resources that we would otherwise be able to. The shuttles are a futuristic alternative to asteroids and comets. Built in bulk these shuttles may only cost a few hundred dollars. Electrically powered by a nuclear fission reactor, propelled by a hot compressed gasses (no more than 10% of the cargo would be needed), and then mostly coasting through space on Newton’s 1st law, these shuttles could collect a lot of gas to place in the Martian atmosphere. While traveling away from the sun, the crafts can use a Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion (M2P2) propulsion system----1. This is where a large (2-3 km radius) magnetic field is erected around the ship. This field is blown by solar radiation, propelling the craft. A one-way voyage would be about two years. Coming back, nuclear thermal propulsion would be used. This makes the return trip about a year to a year and a half. This is the bad part, but 3 years compared to a century is nothing. If we had a fleet of even 3 ships, we could obtain a shipment a year. Yet, if a “gas-core” NTR were used, the rocket could obtain a ∆V of about 10 more than can a “solid-core” NTR rocket5.

The second thing that needs done is to warm the planet from a frigid 253 or so degrees Kelvin to a chilly 278 - 283degrees Kelvin. This warming of about 30 degrees Kelvin can be accomplished though the use of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Ammonia (NH3), Methane (CH4), and Perfluorocarbon/Chlorofluorocarbon’s (PFC/CFC’s).

If we could release about 50 millibars of Carbon Dioxide from the polar caps or raise the temperature about 20 degrees a positive feedback loop will start occur4. A positive feedback loop is when the Carbon Dioxide we release warms the planet and releases more Carbon Dioxide, although not as much as at first, this continues until the process levels off. Warming the polar caps could be accomplished by spreading black dust or growing dark lichen over it.

Ammonia is a very powerful greenhouse gas, but is a rarity. Comets could provide enough to get the process started (in lieu of or in augmentation or dust or lichen for the polar caps). Also, Ammonia has a short, 30-year life span). Ammonia can also be broken into Nitrogen and Hydrogen via equation 1.

Equation 1
2NH3 -->N2 + 3H2 ∆H°rxn = 46.11 KJ mol-1

Methane is also a good greenhouse gas that likewise has a 30-year life span4. Bacteria can create methane to compensate for it is short life span. Methanogens are a type of bacteria that live in cow stomachs and produce large amounts of Methane. So much methane, in fact, that some people attribute some global warming to cows. Methane would have to be brought from Earth or made on Mars.

CFC/PFC’s are, by far, the most powerful gasses that we can bring or create on Mars. CFC/PFC’s are created when the Hydrogen in a Hydrocarbon chain is replaced with a halogen (in this case Chlorine or Fluorine, respectively). PFC’s are the preferred form, for they do not corrupt an ozone layer, if we can get one started. Fluorine brought to Mars would react with Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and/or Methane (CH4) to produce Tetrafluromethane (CF4), Hydrogen Fluoride (HF), and/or Oxygen Difluoride (OF2) via Equation 2 and 3. CFC/PFC’s have life spans around a century. If Oxygen were released (equation 4, 5), Ozone would be created via equation 6.

Equation 2
CO2 + 3F2 --> CF4 + OF2 ∆H°rxn = -545.96 KJ mol-1

Equation 3
CH4 + 4F2 --> CF4 + 4HF ∆H°rxn = -1936.39 KJ mol-1

Equation 4
2OF2 --> O2 + 2F2 ∆H°rxn = 19.66 KJ mol-1

Equation 5
2H2O --> O2 + 2H2 ∆H°rxn = 239.91 KJ mol-1

Equation 6
(a) O2 + λ --> 2O
(b) O + O2 --> O3
(c) O3 + λ --> O + O2

Fission reactors on Mars would be able to heat small sections of the planet’s surface and the local lower atmosphere quickly. If the waste could be reused as fuel or as something else, we would not run into storage problems for the terrraformed(ing) Mars. If the fuel is reused waste, Earth might be able to be get rid of its store, but only if we can find a way to convince other nations and the public that it is safe. The reactors would also be a first or second generation power supplies for the colonists.

The first life on Mars will be bacteria and/or lichen, these organisms are the easiest to genetically modify. The modifications will consist of a way to give them darker, denser (organelles per unit volume) chlorophyll. This will allow them to use the low level light they receive more efficiently, along with letting the organism dissipate more heat into the environment. Building the organism to be chemosynthetic would allow it to work at night also. They also have to be radiation resistant. It might be possible to create bacteria that could use the energies in equations 2 and 3 to produce ATP.

Chlorophyll from algae is greener than the kind found in many plants. This may be because of a denser concentration of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll and Hemoglobin are chemical cousins. The middle of chlorophyll has magnesium, whereas hemoglobin has an iron; Hemoglobin is also 20 Carbons longer. I postulate that if the Magnesium in Chlorophyll was replaced with another transition metal that it would have a different absorption spectrum, which might lead to “black” plants. I also think that Iron cannot be a substitute, for hemoglobin uses Iron, and Hemoglobin absorbs Oxygen, not light. A dense, dark to black Chlorophyll population in our organisms would allow the plants to maximize the energy they get from the maximum amount of sunlight.

Adding the genes that would cause the organism to be chemoautotrophic would allow it to work at night, as well as in the day. Iron eating bacteria such as the Leptospirillum Ferrooxidans oxidizes iron to produce food (reduce Iron and oxidize another compound) and an iron-containing by-product.

Radiation is a major problem on Mars. Until an Ozone Layer is thick, life will have to contend with the harsh radiation. The radiogenius family of bacteria contains a gene(s) that let them live in higher than normal radiation levels. If the gene(s) were moved to a cell without radiation resistance, we could try to tweak the gene(s) to be more potent. The bacteria we would want to use would be the most radiation resistant known-to-man, the Deinococcus Radiodurans6. These bacteria can, and have, been used to do transformations, eliminating much of the guess and check otherwise needed.

These altered bacteria and/or lichen will be used in a variety of ways. Some will be used to heat polar caps, some to convert Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen, some to fix Nitrogen, and some to make Methane. Any number of these genes can be placed into the bacteria or lichen. These genes will let us create compounds and shape the biosphere. Lichen and bacteria work much better at things like this than would a factory. Bacteria and lichen can also do more than one thing at once. In addition, they do not need fixed. To heat the polar caps, lichen can contain dark chlorophyll and the genes to make Methane. This would allow the lichen to heat the polar caps by absorbing heat and releasing a substance that is a greenhouse gas, and can become a super greenhouse gas. The main differences between lichen and bacteria are that lichen is a fungus and grows roots, whereas the bacteria just grow on their surface. This is the reason lichen will be a better choice; they will not be swept up in a dust storm.

Multicellular plants will need to have Nitrogen fixed into the soil by bacteria. They cannot live on the small amounts that bacteria can. The first open air gardens (not in a greenhouse supplied mostly by Earth) will happen after 20 or thirty years of bacteria occupation. Even then, gardens will be small and crops sparse. Yet, as the plants die they will enrich the soil with Nitrogen and Phosphorous. After 5 to 10 years, crops will be able to be grown. Until we have created a stable ecosystem, external resources will be needed to be brought in.

We need to design an ecosystem that is stable, yet has ample room to change. This is necessary because we want the ecosystem to continue to grow and develop on its own. As the system develops, it will change and adapt in ways we cannot even imagine. The best starting place would be to grow bacteria and lichen. Then after the thirty or so years, we could grow plants, which would not need insects to reproduce. This ecosystem would be stable if left alone, but people (save vegetarians) eat meat. If we brought cattle with us, we would have to supply them with oxygen along with us. Fish, on the other hand, could be grown in water that contains algae on the tanks 5 sides and on top. This algae would convert Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen for the fishes use as well as us. This would create a symbiotic relationship with the fish and algae. This fish would produce waste the algae could use and the algae produce Oxygen the fish use. The algae could also be a food supply for the fish. The algae can be supplied with raw materials that the fish cannot use. As we build lakes, oceans, and streams, we must populate them with fish and algae. After the atmosphere, or at least a local atmosphere if possible, is breathable, we cold transport steer, rabbits, emus, any other animal we like, but most importantly insects. Insects will be brought first, and will allow for plants that are more productive and the spread of plant life. We must keep in mind when we are creating this ecosystem, it will change unexpectedly. We must accept any changes and modify our plans to fit them. Once we have stabilized the ecosystem, the planet will be ready for any animal life we see fit.

Terraforming Mars will force us to work as humans, instead of America, Russia, China, and Europe. Perhaps the cooperative unity/competition balance gained will be a greater achievement that completely redesigning a planet. That is what we will have to think about during the century or two during terraforming. This is not to say that colonization cannot happen during the process, colonization will happen even before terraforming begins. The annexation of Mars for our own use will be the first step towards developing what Kardashev called a Type II civilization, one that can make use of all the resources in its respective Solar System5. Theses goals that are grandiose, indeed, but are the next step in human history. For, if we do not explore we will wither away and die.

Works Cited:

1) “Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion: Tapping the Energy of the Solar Wind for Spacecraft Propulsion”; R. M. Winglee, J . Slough, T. Ziemba, A. Goodson J.
2) “CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 70th Edition”; Robert C. Weast, Ph.D; David R. Lide, Ph.D; Melvin J. Astle, Ph. D; William H. Beyer, Ph. D
3) “General Chemistry with Qualitative Analysis 9th Edition”; Henry F. Holtzeclaw, Jr.; William R. Robinsion; Jerome; D. Odom
4) “A Mathematical Model of Terraforming Mars.”; Martyn J. Fogg; Christopher P. McKay.
5) “Entering Space; Creating a Spacefaring Civilization”; Robert Zubrin

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