Earlier this week, thousands of science-fiction writers, as well as a particularly famous billionaire, had cold water chucked all over their fantastical visions of the future.
A new NASA-backed study in Nature Astronomy claimed that it’s not currently possible to terraform the environment of Mars to make it Earth-like and, ultimately, habitable. Part of this mammoth task would involve releasing the Red Planet’s stores of carbon dioxide trapped in the planet’s rock and ice to significantly increase the atmospheric carbon dioxide pressure. This thicker atmosphere would warm up the Martian environment and allow it to support liquid water.
However, the researchers worked out that Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm the Red Planet.
Never one to shy away from a Twitter spat, Elon Musk took it upon himself to challenge the conclusion.
Musk has previously expressed a keen interest in the idea of colonizing and transforming our closest planetary neighbor, even suggested it would be possible to terraform Mars by nuking its poles. Although he didn’t specify what research backed up the latest claims, he did later cite the name of NASA planetary scientific Christopher McKay, who’s somewhat of an expert in the field of terraforming.
“It's actually a bit more difficult than that,” Discover Magazine tweeted back, revealing they'd decided to ask the scientists involved in the study about Musk’s response. They reaffirmed that the process is impossible by today’s known technology, just as the original study said.
However, what if Musk was being more farsighted and visionary with his projections? Well, the jury is to out. They suggest that Musk’s idea would only be viable with a planet-sized mirror that would pummel Mars with energy and force it to release its carbon dioxide. This, as you can imagine, would not be feasible in the foreseeable future.
Even if this technology was available, it’s not certain that Mars would contain the necessary amounts of dormant carbon dioxide anyway. The original study suggests that hypothetically melting all of Mars’ ice caps would only release about 1.5 percent of the carbon dioxide necessary. As for the rocks, they would be needed to be cooked up at a temperature of 300°C (572°F) and it would only increase the pressure to about 7 percent that of Earth.
The only solution would be accessing carbon-bearing minerals buried deep in the Martian crust. However, how we could reach and "free" this carbon is unknown as it would require ridiculous amounts of energy, knowledge about the planet, and mechanical wizardry.
For the time being, based on what we actually know, terraforming Mars remains a very, very distant pipedream.