Scientists propose plan to terraform Mars and create a ‘breathable atmosphere’

The idea of terraforming Mars – aka “Earth’s Twin” – is a fascinating idea. Now experts believe we can actually do it, in around 100,000 years. According to a recent study presented at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 NASA workshop, scientists Aaron Berliner of the University of California at Berkeley and Chris McKay of the Division of Space Science at the NASA Ames Research Center believe in around 100,000 years, the red planet could have a breathable atmosphere.

We propose the following abstract on a Martian Terraforming timeline as a guide to shaping planetary science research over the coming century. Terraforming Mars can be divided into two phases. The first phase is warming the planet from the present average surface temperature of -60ºC to a value close to Earth’s average temperature to +15ºC, and recreating a thick CO2 atmosphere. This warming phase is relatively easy and quick and could take ~100 years.

The second phase is producing levels of O2 in the atmosphere that would allow humans and other large mammals to breathe normally. This oxygenation phase is relatively difficult and would take 100,000 years or more unless one postulates a technological breakthrough,” wrote experts in the study.

Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

However, before this process can begin, Berliner and McKay warn in their article that certain prior steps must be taken. These include researching the Martian environment to determine surface water levels, calculating the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the form of ice in Polar Regions and the amount of nitrates in the Martian soil.

As they explain, all these steps are keys to making Mars Earth-like AGAIN.

Heating up Mars

Heating the red planet would basically be achieved through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, just as we are currently doing on Earth. If these gases capture 10% of the solar radiation that escapes today from the red planet, scientists calculate that in a century Mars could reach an average surface temperature of 15 degrees Celsius.

Furthermore, Berliner and McKay indicate we would have to reach an oxygen concentration of 13% on Mars. The method they believe is best is photosynthesis.

This is what Mars would look like in the first phase of terraforming.

…And this is what it could look like when everything is completed.

The Warming Phase on Mars results in a planet with a thick CO2 atmosphere. The thickness is determined by the total releasable CO2 present on Mars. The temperatures are well above freezing and liquid water is common. An Earth-like hydrological cycle is maintained. Photosynthetic organisms can be introduced as conditions warm and organic biomass is thus produced. A rich flora and fauna are present. A natural result of this is the biological consumption of the nitrate and perchlorate in the Martian soil producing N2 and O2 gas. While the pressure is high enough that humans do not need a space suit, they need a gas mask to provide O2 and prevent high levels of CO2 in the lungs,”wrote experts in the study.

To alter the thick CO2 atmosphere of Mars produced in the Warming Phase to allow for humans to breathe naturally requires that the O2 levels be above 13% and the CO2 levels be below 1% of sea level pressure. The high O2 and low CO2 levels on Earth are due to photosynthesis which uses light to power the following transformation [H2O + CO2 = CH2O + O2 ] Where CH2O is a chemical representation of biomass,” indicate Berliner and McKay.

All of this, scientists explain, could be achieved with the current technology in around 100,000 years.

However, there’s a little catch so to speak.

If there is currently life (or life that could be revived) on Mars, this would lead us to collide with certain ethical issues related to how terraforming might affect the colonized planet.

If Martian life is related to Earth life – possibly due to meteorite exchange – then the situation is familiar, and issues of what other types of Earth life to introduce and when must be addressed. However, if Martian life in unrelated to Earth life and clearly represents a second genesis of life, then significant technical and ethical issues are raised,” concluded Berliner and McKay.


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