What exactly is terraforming?

The term terraforming first appears in print in a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction, the story was “Collision Orbit” by Will Stewart (a pen name for Jack Williamson). Although this was the first time that specific word was used was in print, there have been several instances before where the concept has been used in science fiction.

Terra means land territory or sometimes (most specifically in science fiction) Earth. As a verb, to form something is to make or fashion into a certain shape or form. By the most basic meaning, terraforming is taking land and changing it. Looking at the word in terms of science and science fiction it literally means to change land (or a planet) to be more Earthlike.

Tv shows movies and books usually focus on painting a visual display when it comes to terraforming. This is most evident in vegetation. Trees, plants, and grass are all fairly easy to show how an alien planet has been changed to be more suitable for human life. But there is way more to terraforming than just plant life.

By changing the spin of an asteroid to change the gravitational force applied to a specific point on that asteroid is a form of terraforming.

However, the biggest aspect of terraforming is changing the atmosphere to be more hospitable. Regardless if we get plants to grow on a planet or not, we can’t live there unless we change the air to be breathable and nontoxic.

So, how would we go about terraforming? To answer this, let’s look at a couple different examples.

Mars is the most commonly used planet when we talk about terraforming. Mars has a lot in common with Earth and is the most similar planet to our own.

Mars has a third of the mass of Earth. This means that we would be able to jump higher and lift more weight on Mars, but it’s not so far from what we are used to that we couldn’t live on it.

Mars is in the “Goldilocks zone”, the area in our so solar system where it’s not too hot and not too cold for life. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could change the planet to sustain life.

So, what are the obstacles that we would have to get over to terraforming Mars? Well, first of all, Mars only has about 1% of the atmosphere of Earth. Also, because Mars is further from the sun, it gets much colder than on Earth, around -153 degrees Celsius (-243 degrees F).
So, to warm the red planet up, we could trigger a greenhouse effect by introducing gasses into Mars’s atmosphere. We could mine methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia from asteroids for this purpose. All three of these gasses are greenhouse gases and would help trap heat in the atmosphere.

As the temperature on Mars begins to rise, water from its polar ice caps would melt and cover part of the planet’s surface in oceans. At this point, we could introduce vegetation that would begin to release oxygen into the atmosphere.

Each step would take a long time, possibly generations, but eventually, the planet could have a mixture of air what is breathable for humans.

Except, I forgot to mention one thing. Mars has no magnetosphere!

A magnetosphere is important for one major reason. A magnetosphere deflects most of the harmful radiation found in space. High radiation is bad for living things, but there is something else that we need to address. Because of the lack of a magnetosphere, solar winds have stripped the atmosphere away from Mars. Even if we’ve introduced all of the gasses to Mars that we previously discussed, the solar winds would slowly strip them away.

There are ways we could work around Mars not having a magnetosphere. One idea is that we could build a dome or shell around the planet. This shell would collect the solar radiation to be converted into energy. The dome would also contain the atmosphere so none would be lost out into space. But this would be a very expensive operation that would cost more in recourses than what is available on Mars, so this probably isn’t the way to go.

What about recreating a magnetosphere? Theoretically, if we could liquefy the outer core of Mars, then as is solidified it would naturally create its own magnetosphere. We could achieve this with an explosion at the planet’s core, but it would have to be a large explosion.

So, terraforming Mars is a possibility, but maybe there is something that would be easier…

Looking at Venus, we see almost the opposite of what we see on Mars.

Venus has an atmosphere that more than a hundred times more thick than ours here on Earth. It has an average surface temperature of 460 degrees C (860 degrees F).

To cool Venus down we would have to introduce large amounts of hydrogen. The hydrogen would bond with oxygen to create water and carbon to help form graphite. The water would form oceans and the graphite would absorb excess nitrogen.

By introducing a gas, after chemical reactions, we would end up with a lower atmospheric pressure. With the right calculations, we could get the atmospheric pressure close to Earths pressure. And just like Mars, because Venus is in the Goldilocks zone, having an atmosphere closer to Earths means there would be fewer greenhouse gases and the temperature would drop to a livable temperature.

But, our biggest problem with terraforming Venus is the amount of hydrogen that would be required. Approximately 4×10^19 kilograms! For those of you who don’t understand what that number means, that’s a 4 followed by a 1 followed by eighteen 0’s! Write that number on paper, and then realize that for every three zeros the number is increasing by one thousand times.

We potentially could harvest the hydrogen from the gas giants in our solar system, but it would be time-consuming and very expensive.

Without going into too much detail, we could also terraform (at least in part) mercury, Europa, and Titan.

Could you imagine turning Europa into an actual water world?

As far as Mercury, we probably wouldn’t change the whole planet, but we could easily build domes and terraform the area of the planet inside.

We are far from being able to terraform Mars, Venus, and any other celestial body in our solar system. So why should we actively study and test our theories on terraforming?

Neil deGrasse Tyson was once a guest on Bill Maher’s show. While on the show Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “If you have the power to turn another planet into Earth, then you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.”

We live in a strange time, where the most powerful among us are afraid of losing their power. In an effort to hold onto their power, they actively and aggressively slow the progress and understanding of actual science. This, in turn, creates science deniers and science skeptics.

Maybe at another time, I will go into the difference between a denier and a skeptic, but not today.

The long and short of this is we now live in a world where a celebrity can say, ‘see that person gave their baby a vaccine and they now have autism’. And people take that as fact. We have leaders of religious sects who are preaching that the Earth is flat. We have politicians who are paid to ignore (some) facts and argue statistics that are actively making things worse for the environment.

The corruption in world governments is apparent enough that some people are taking an opposite look at terraforming. If you do a search for terraforming Earth on the internet you will probably run into several sites, articles, and videos all claiming that those who are in charge of our world governments and big businesses are changing the planet on purpose. The claims are that they are polluting and contaminating our environment to make way for… well, depending on where you get the information, either gods/demons, cross-dimensional beings, aliens, or the next evolution of humans.

Trying to get back on track, if we started researching more terraforming techniques. We could significantly increase the carrying capacity of Earth. The carrying capacity is the total number of humans that the Earth could maintain while maintaining a balance in its resources.

Did you know that the Sahara desert, now the largest desert on our planet, used to be a lush tropical jungle? What if we could change things so that northern Africa would once again be green? What if we could use science to make non-futile ground grow bountiful crops? Advancements in terraforming would also improve our ability and understanding in creating and maintaining life support systems for spaceships and underwater habitations.

Even if you don’t believe in certain aspects presented by scientists, there is no denying the benefits of using scientific methods in improving life on Earth.

My point is we need to actively support and fund scientific programs, even if we don’t see any immediate benefits from them. Who knows, some small breakthrough in understanding could open up a whole new world of possibilities and studies.

Let me know what you think in the comments, and have a nice day.

About The Author

Nathan is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author. He studied physics and chemistry in school. Father, husband and owned by a Pug.

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