So you want to ter­raform Mars

Popular Science - - CHARTED -

MARS IS KNOWN AS THE Red Planet, but we could color it green. By un­leash­ing green­house gases that trap the sun’s heat— some­thing hu­mans hap­pen to be very good at—we could build a warmer, breath­able at­mos­phere that pro­tects our set­tlers from deep-space ra­di­a­tion. NASA as­tro­bi­ol­o­gist Chris McKay thinks we could have mild tem­per­a­tures af­ter about 100 years of ter­raform­ing. But it’ll take much longer to re-cre­ate the sweet cock­tail of 21 per­cent oxy­gen, 0.04 per­cent car­bon diox­ide, and 78 per­cent ni­tro­gen that fills our lungs on Earth.

YEAR 100,000

Sorry dogs: Plants are hu­man­ity’s best friend on Mars. Af­ter many mil­len­nia of pho­to­syn­the­sis, abun­dant trees, crops, and maybe even dec­o­ra­tive flow­ers have bro­ken the re­lent­less hold of car­bon diox­ide on the at­mos­phere; the oxy­gen-filled air is fi­nally breath­able for our Mar­tian colonists! Hope it was worth the long wait.


The heat boost from PFCs helps re­lease car­bon diox­ide frozen in the soil and ice caps, di­al­ing up the tem­per­a­ture. With the warmth, ice melts and wa­ter ac­cu­mu­lates in lakes and streams; snow­storms and rain sweep across the Mar­tian plains. Mi­crobes and small plants ac­cus­tomed to po­lar en­vi­ron­ments might sur­vive out­doors.


As the first colonists ar­rive, ro­bots mine rocks for the crit­i­cal el­e­ment flu­o­rine to pro­duce per­flu­o­ri­nated com­pounds (PFCs)—mostly non­toxic gases that are great at trap­ping heat. The sun can do the rest of the work; McKay es­ti­mates that four hours of Mar­tian sun­shine con­tains more en­ergy than all of Earth’s nu­clear weapons.

YEAR 100

Skies on Mars are even bluer than Earth’s, thanks to the thick at­mos­phere en­velop­ing the planet, and trees from moun­tain climes can thrive. Now that the tem­per­a­ture and pres­sure are com­fort­able, set­tlers can go out­doors with­out space suits. But the car­bon-diox­iderich air is still poi­sonous to hu­mans, so oxy­gen masks are a must.

By Mary Beth Griggs / il­lus­tra­tion by Su­per­totto

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