A reality check for Mars visionaries
The recent discovery of what appears to be a subterranean lake on Mars revived talk of putting human colonies on the Red Planet. But more ambitious dreams of “terraforming” Mars—artificially adjusting the planet’s environment to make it suitable for human life—are just not realistic, a new NASA-funded study has found. Currently, the Red Planet’s atmosphere is far too thin and cold to sustain surface water, an essential ingredient for life. Science-fiction writers, as well as SpaceX founder and Mars enthusiast Elon Musk, have speculated that bombing the planet’s ice caps—perhaps with nuclear weapons—could release enough carbon dioxide to thicken the atmosphere and warm it to a level that would enable humans to live there without spacesuits or airtight domes. But the new study has concluded that this plan would never work—because there simply isn’t enough readily accessible CO2 on Mars, New Scientist reports. Using data collected by NASA spacecraft, the researchers calculated that releasing all the carbon dioxide stored in the planet’s rocks and ice caps would only triple atmospheric pressure—roughly 2 percent of the change required to make the planet habitable. More gas is likely stored underground, said lead author Bruce Jakosky, but there probably wouldn’t be enough to make up the shortfall even if we knew how to release it. “Terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology,” Jakosky said.