Terraforming: It Wont Be Quite Like the Movies at First
When you think of astronauts on Mars, what comes to mind? Did you picture a red planet turning green with time and continued human colonization? Unfortunately, those days are far in the future, if they even happen at all. During the interview, Davis explained, Terraforming has a connotation of humans making another planetary body, like Mars, Earth-like. But really, its about humans changing their environment to make it more supportive of our need. What does this mean?
The first few trips to Mars will only include the essentials. One of NASAs first goals for its astronauts is to learn how to live on the planet. Since it differs greatly from Earth, survival is an important skill for astronauts to master. The initial base will probably include a habitat and a science lab. [The inside of] these modules will be much like the space station, but there will be differences. One example Davis gave included preventing toxic dust from getting into the habitat and lab. Microbial life is another threat to astronauts. Without more research on the planet, NASA cant say for certain what dangers could threaten human life. With this in mind, all scientists involved with the Mars mission will take these and other potential risks under consideration.
After the NASA base is well established and the astronauts learned survival basics, things get more interesting. Eventually, since it costs so much to send things from Earth, we will want to farm on Mars. Such a farm will really be green houses to protect the plants against the challenging Martian environment, said Davis. Keep in mind the Martian soil isnt like the soil on Earth. It lacks organics [the] rotting biological materials that plants need. Fortunately, it contains the minerals they require. Davis said that his team calls this soil regolith and it will need to be cleansed of some toxic materials. And NASA scientists can get the job done.
Detoxified soil isnt the only thing astronauts will need to grow plants. Theyll also need to utilize the water from Mars ice-capped poles. Davis said, Many anticipate that the first human base will be located adjacent to these billion-year-old ice deposits, so that humans can easily produce the volumes of water that they will need to support water intensive activities like farming. As of yet there is no word about which pole will be more beneficial, if theres a difference at all.
Before speaking to Davis, I believed that future Martian farms would be equivalent to greenhouses here on Earth. It seemed logical. Thats how people control plant growth here. However, while the plants will need a higher pressure to grow, the plants [dont] have to be [at] an Earth-like pressure. In fact, we can pressurize the greenhouse with carbon dioxide, which is the main component of the Martian atmosphere. This sounds like a win-win for both the scientists and the plants. Instead of the astronauts having to wear cumbersome space suits, they could just wear lightweight oxygen masks in the greenhouses. The key takeaway is that the planet doesnt have to transform into Earth2.0. Maybe one day it will, but for the time being, it just has to function for NASA scientists to live and work.
Time Will Tell
Mars has captured the imagination of humans for decades. These plans are just the next step in the process of getting the Mars Mission from the drawing room floor to a funded mission with a launch date. NASA isnt the only ones with their eyes on Mars. Others are already coming up with their own plans for the red planet. Scientists and enthusiasts have speculated on everything from nuking the planet into habitability to creating a magnetic shield around the planet to encourage it to grow its own atmosphere.
Mars is hopefully just our first step into the universe. Once weve dipped our toes out into the solar system, it will be easier to expand out into the asteroid belt and beyond. Mars low gravity provides the perfect platform for constructing and launching other deep space vehicles. After weve got that foothold, the only thing holding us back is our technology. As it is technology is the Achilles heal of the mission now. We might have a way to get to Mars before we have a means of safe exploration.
Those of us who have grown up watching the Apollo missions, space shuttles take-off and now the Falcon rockets climbing through the atmosphere likely wont see Mars colonized in our lifetimes, but that doesnt negate the wonder we all feel every time one of those rockets soars into the sky. Its not just a rocket, but a source of inspiration for generations to come one of which will step foot on Martian soil.
Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. When she isn’t writing, Megan enjoys hiking, swimming and going to the movies. She invites you to follow her on LinkedIn and subscribe to her blog here.