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No, terraforming Mars isn’t going to be possible in your lifetime

Sure, Mars colonization is possible with us living in indoors in giant domes, but the whole thing would certainly be easier if the planet’s atmosphere was somehow made more like Earth’s. One way to achieve this would be to utilize the carbon dioxide already trapped in the Martian surface to thicken the atmosphere up to the point at which Mars is warm enough to keep water in the liquid form we know and love. Simple, right?

“In changing the Martian climate to one that is more Earth-like, we would want to increase the atmospheric pressure, so that we could walk around without spacesuits, and the temperature, so that ice would melt and we wouldn’t need to use heaters as much,” Bruce Jakosky, a professor in the Geological Sciences department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Digital Trends. “To do this, we need to add a greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the best available greenhouse gas — it’s very effective, and it should be abundant on Mars.”

Sadly, science is here to act as Debbie Downer, since a new research paper from Jakosky and Northern Arizona University’s Christopher Edwards suggests that there’s simply not enough carbon dioxide to go around.

“The short answer is that much of the CO2 has been lost to space,” Jakosky continued. “That which remains behind is not enough to raise either the pressure or the temperature enough to be useful. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to mobilize the CO2. In practice, it’s not possible to use CO2 on Mars to terraform the planet, and terraforming cannot be done with present-day technology.”

Even if it was possible to melt the polar ice caps on Mars using thermonuclear explosions (a theory put forward by SpaceX CEO and would-be Mars émigré Elon Musk), the amount of CO2 released would only be enough to bring Mars’ atmospheric pressure to a measly 1.2 percent of Earth’s. Even for the most ambitious of Martian settlers, that’s pretty tough to live on!

Don’t give up hope, though. Just because this method wouldn’t work doesn’t mean that terraforming is out of the question altogether. “It would still be possible to terraform Mars by, for example, manufacturing high-efficiency greenhouse gases such as CFCs that could raise the temperature,” Jakosky said. “But that would require large-scale manufacturing processes that clearly are beyond our present capability.”

In other words, things may look hopeless to us now, but there’s still hope for the Mars enthusiasts of 2118. Is it wrong to be envious of your great, great, great grandchildren?

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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