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The Future of Mars?

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The maps and descriptions in this feature are from Frans Blok's site, http://www.geocities.com/fra_nl/. His content is used with permission and remains his copyright.

The concept of terraforming was introduced to me when I was still at highschool. The late great Carl Sagan got my head into the sulfuric clouds with his suggestion that simply seeding the right bacteria into the atmosphere of Venus would be enough to start a remarkable transformation. The closest thing to hell in the whole solar system (except maybe for the sun) could be turned into at least a twin Earth and possibly even a new Garden of Eden. With pencils and crayons, my tools in those primitive days, I made the first geographic map of Earth's lost sister. Much later I found out that Sagan had made his proposal before the pressure and composition of the atmosphere became fully known; besides, I also underestimated the problems you get when a day is almost as long as a year, like is the case on Venus.

These days, our neighbour on the other side, Mars, looks more promising. Mars is a lot smaller than Earth, but even in it's present state I would prefer this little red world with it's somewhat cold, but mostly sunny weather above the oppressive heat on Venus. But can we turn Mars into a little paradise and how long would it take? And when will we have the necessary technology at an affordable price? The answer is that nobody can give more than a rough estimation about how long terraforming Mars might take. But whereas some of these estimations predict a duration of many thousands of years, some others are more optimistic.

In his article "Bringing life to Mars" in Scientific American (spring 1999) Christopher McKay suggests that the local production of "super-greenhouse gasses" like CF4, C2F6 or SF6, would be a surprisingly easy and efficient way to make Mars' atmosphere a little warmer. And after this small rise in temperature, CO2 released from the permafrost and the poles would do the rest. All the planet needs is a little push in the right direction, or so it seems. McKay mentions a ten year period to defrost Mars and a sixty year period for a rise to a comfortable average of 15 degrees centigrade. He adds however that this is the most optimistic scenario; periods up to ten times longer are more likely. Still this sounds encouraging: most of us would be able to see a considerable change on the Red Planet within our own lifetimes.

After this first stage of terraforming Mars will not be an Earthlike planet with breathable air, but a world with a carbon dioxide atmosphere where plants could live but humans would still need to wear CO2-masks. The plants would eventually convert the atmosphere into a more Earthlike environment, and that second stage might take much longer than the first. But by the time this becomes an issue genetic engineering might have developed "super-convertors" to speed up the process.

The most fascinating idea is that terraforming could start today; according to McKay, all it takes is a few hundred "Volkswagen-sized" solar-powered greenhouse units. That wouldn't cost more than a few billion dollars; wealthy citizens like Bill Gates or Ted Turner could afford it... When the first NASA-crew arrives around 2019 they may get a big surprise...

Once the technical problems have been solved we'll run up against some ethical dilemma's. Do we have the right, after what we've done to our own planet, to go and devastate other worlds? Shouldn't we solve the problems on our homeworld first before we start messing with other planets? In Kim Stanley Robinson's Red, Green and Blue Mars Trilogy Red "ecoteurs" even resort to terrorist methods to try and stop the greening of Mars.

These objections should of course be taken seriously. The last couple of centuries show that the application of technology whenever it becomes available doesn't necessary guarantee a beneficial effect on nature, or on human wellbeing. But I also think these "Red" argumentations are based on a too pessimistic view of mankind. From the ricefields of Bali to the polders of Holland and from the temples of Bangkok to the Manhattan skyline, "we" have also done a lot of beautiful things on this planet. Can't we assume that greening the Red Planet will result in some equally stunning Martian counterparts? And of course the problems on our home planet deserve our full attention, but Mars may be part of the solution for those problems. What this world needs right now is a new world...

As a matter of fact, let's not overestimate our own part. We may give this first push in the right direction, and provide some additional material, but Mars will largely terraform itself (or should I say areoform?).. We'll never be able to change it's size and it's gravity. The four supervolcanoes and Valles Marineris will always dwarf anything on Earth. It's unlikely that Mars' oceans will ever take up a large portion of the surface and as a result the climate will be dryer than on Earth. Mars will never be a duplicate of our home world.

Anyway, no matter if terraforming really is an option, if it's ethical or not, and how long it will actually take, there's no doubt that somewhere in the 21st century people will start living on Mars. The population pressure on Earth will become so big that a mere reduction of launch cost will get humanity spread through the Solar system. And Mars, with it's beautiful landscapes and gentle gravity will be one of the most attractive destinations.

These maps owe a lot to The United States Geological Survey and their Planetary Data System. Their excellent PDS-website provided me with the raw material for the maps. Coastlines and other topographically sensitive data are based on a more recent source: the map created by the Mars Orbital Laser Altometer onboard Mars Global Surveyor, first published in May of 1999. So far there's little more than wild estimations about the total quantity of water on Mars, and about the technical feasibility of getting water from elsewhere; therefore I just picked an altitude that resulted in an interesting coastline; I also assumed that with most of the southern hemisphere draining into Hellas, the water level in this basin would become considerably higher than in the northern seas.

I felt that this illustrated calendar wouldn't be complete without the listing of historical events that mark important moments in the development of Mars, so I also invented a future history to go with it. Some people may say I'm staying on the optimistic side about the time schedule, but I love the idea that I only have to become hundred and fifty years old to be able to breath Martian air... As far as the events in this future history are concerned, they do not necessarily coincide with my favourite scenario, just like Kim Stanley Robinson is probably not really looking forward to a violent struggle between Greens and Reds. It's rather an exploration of events that might occur and risks that could threaten Martian society. Several of the world's great powers still claim parts of Antarctica, so will they keep there greedy hands off Mars, once they realize there's something to get there?

There is no Rotterdam-like system behind the naming of towns and regions. Whatever will happen on Mars in the next centuries, topographic names will follow their own logic and a great deal of coincidence will determine which places Martians will call "home". Some of the names on these maps are already existing denominations of features on the planet, some are obviously named after persons that are still alive, or even unborn, today and that the future Martians may want to honour. Some places are, inevitably, named after places on Earth and some places have mysterious names of unknown origin even to myself. Some names are based on the assumption that the New Martians will have a sense of humor. And although I managed to smuggle in some personal favourites (if you look carefully you may get to know my favourite Belgian beer brand as well as my favourite Hindu God), no conclusions should be drawn from any names found here...

- Frans Blok, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Earth, 2 Medior 12 / 24 June 1999