14
$\begingroup$

I’ve been working on a story where terraforming robots are sent to another world and the colonists come along later. Originally, I had the new world be extrasolar, but for other plot reasons, I’m wanting to move it to Mars. One problem: I want the results of the terraforming to be something of a surprise to the arrivals. That requires that there be something that keeps Earth from getting broadcasts from the Martian robots and prevents Earth from observing Mars through telescopes, but does not prohibit Earth from building and launching colony ships.

I’ve backed myself into this plot corner, and rather than adjust the other elements of the story that are working, I figured I’d ask here to close this gap, if possible. Is there some oddity of solar flares or Earth atmospheric changes or ??? that can save my story?

$\endgroup$
  • 16
    $\begingroup$ Aside from taking out Earth's means of observing mars (which would require something fairly catastrophic to happen to Earth, almost certainly scrapping the Mars mission, and in any case probably a major problem to add to your existing story) I don't see any plausible way of doing this. Any terraforming that's even partway completed would just change Mar's atmosphere and therefore it's spectral signature too much not to be noticed from Earth. $\endgroup$ – Gene Oct 7 '18 at 22:51
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind the flight time: a Mars transfer with modern tech will take at least three months, more likely six. If something unexpected occurs on Mars while the ships are in flight, they probably don't have the capacity to turn back. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Oct 7 '18 at 23:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ More clarification on terraforming, please. Is it planet-wide, or localized? In craters, or on a plain? Telescopes do not give that much of a detailed view of Mars. However, a shift from a red planet to a green planet would be observable, if extensive enough. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 8 '18 at 4:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ But if the terraforming is done under domes, you are home free. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 8 '18 at 4:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Terraforming would create changes in the atmosphere that would be measurable using late 19th century equipment, now that we know what we're looking for. Loss of radio contact is readily explained by equipment failure, but not loss of telescope observations. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Oct 8 '18 at 21:13

26 Answers 26

23
$\begingroup$

Not sure on the plausibility of this but here is an idea, the terraforming raises a large amount of dust that covers the majority of the planet. As a result, communications are blocked and telescope observations don't work because the dust is covering everything.

Earth still sends the colony ships because the dust storm is still persisting meaning that the robots are still working and terraforming (and they can see an occasional robot wandering out of the dust storm, and then heading back into it), they just add some extra supplies to account for some extra delays due to the dust blocking some (not all) of the solar power and hence reducing the operating speed of the robots.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Hm... this puts the hiding effect around Mars. That's narrower than I had been thinking, but possible. And we know from recent events (the rover losing contact) that global dust storms on Mars are possible. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 8 '18 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ THat's a great idea, it's really the only thing one could think of... $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 9 '18 at 21:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If terraforming was working, there would not be a shroud of dust around the planet. Seeing Mars covered in an impenetrable dust storm, in fact, would be massively convincing evidence that Mars had not, in fact, been effectively terraformed. You can't stop a living water world from looking like a living water world. $\endgroup$ – J... Oct 10 '18 at 11:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @J... A terraformed planet can imply a livable planet and not earth like planet. Earth like doesn't mean it has to look like earth. It could just be livable like earth. You don't wave a wand and change a red planet into a green and blue one. And you certainly can't import an entire biosphere from one planet to another. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Oct 10 '18 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee There are bare minimums for supporting earth-like life - terraforming would require establishing an environment that could support liquid water, the water cycle, the CO2 cycle, an oxygen atmosphere, etc. There wouldn't be any wand waving, and it would indeed take centuries or longer, but the end result would certainly be a blue-green world with a thick atmosphere, weather, clouds, etc. $\endgroup$ – J... Oct 10 '18 at 23:54
46
$\begingroup$

Switch planets.

Venus has a permanent, thick, global layer of clouds that covers it. We cannot observe its surface from the Earth. Even satellites can only peek at its surface through radar. The only times we got a glimpse from her surface were when the russians sent some probes there, but no probe survived for more than a couple hours if my memory serves me right.

Ironically, to terraform Venus, you need to keep a cloud cover, of regular water clouds. The reason being that if the surface gets direct sunlight, the sun will keep the place a wasteland, even if you remove all the sulphuric acid and excess carbon. Not only Venus gets 4x more solar radiation per area unit compared to Earth, it also spins very slowly - anything exposed to the sun would be charred. A new, regular cloud cover would keep the surface from prying eyes. Granted, scientists would notice something funny through spectroscopy, but it would take time to send a mission to investigate.

As a plus, venusian gravity is practically the same as Earth's as opposed to Mars annoyingly low gravity - too little to allow for proper movement, yet too high to allow us to use heavy suits such as the ones from the Apollo Mission.

Also: Venus may just be habitable as is right now, if you avoid direct sunlight and stay on a floating base just above the clouds. Mars... Not so much. Anyway, people arriving to a floating base might find it interesting that the atmosphere is suddenly breathable. If you lower the pressure, any floating base will lose altitude as well. Might be quite a fright.

Last but not least: you can get more solar energy on Venus, and the Δv to get there from Earth is nearly the same as to Mars.

$\endgroup$
  • 22
    $\begingroup$ Twenty bucks to the first person who wears nothing but a breather and sun protection in the upper sulfuric acid saturated atmosphere of Venus. $\endgroup$ – B.fox Oct 8 '18 at 4:55
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @B.fox you mean 20 bucks to the next of kin? $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Oct 8 '18 at 6:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @B.fox on it. Lemme just call up musky. $\endgroup$ – Trotski94 Oct 8 '18 at 7:03
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ If we are speaking about terraforming, the existing cloud cover will surely go? Or at least change significantly as it will have different composition. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Oct 8 '18 at 7:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Here is a really good summary of the pros and cons of terraforming Venus, and the various proposed methods of doing so.. Very useful background if you decide to use this answer. How Do We Terraform Venus? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 8 '18 at 16:30
27
$\begingroup$

One problem: I want the results of the terraforming to be something of a surprise to the arrivals. That requires that there be something that keeps Earth from getting broadcasts from the Martian robots and prevents Earth from observing Mars through telescopes, […]

Not necessarily. The arriving colonists will not be politically powerful people with full access to robot telemetry, telescopes, etc.; so all you need is some sociopolitical dysfunction on Earth to justify why they weren't given accurate information, or weren't able to distinguish accurate information from lies.

Potential factors include:

  • Government propaganda. The government talks about how great the terraforming is, and colonists have no way of knowing that the government is lying.
  • Interdepartmental non-cooperation. The Department of Terraforming doesn't want the blame for any colonization failures, so they fudge their numbers. The colonists get their information from the Department of Colonization, which is completely separate, and doesn't have the accurate information.
  • Fake news. Reputable journalism has collapsed to the point that most people don't really pay attention to the news anymore. The colonists have ready access to thousands of opinions, but no easy way to tell which ones are actually informed opinions as opposed to speculation, conspiracy theories, and so on.
  • Poor education. The colonists were given very precise data, but no meaningful interpretations of it, and most of them lacked the scientific background to make sense of it on their own. (For example, they were told that the partial pressure of oxygen was 100 mm Hg, but not what "partial pressure" meant, nor whether 100 mm Hg was enough to make the air breathable.)
$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like these ideas. Though it's worth noting that these all end up as "bad" surprises and the OP didn't say if they wanted the Terraforming to be better or worse than expected. Though plot wise a bad surprise has more legs than a good one. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Oct 8 '18 at 8:35
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Jontia : Inaccurate information may well lead to positives too. Consider a fragmented, awful government on earth seeding anti-colonial propaganda to try stop people leaving. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 8 '18 at 15:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Jontia: Thanks! I did focus on bad surprises (for exactly the reason you suggest), but "fake news" and "poor education" work for any kind of surprise. "Government propaganda" can also be adapted slightly for a good surprise, either as Joe Bloggs suggests or by having the colonists disbelieve their usually-lying government when it claims everything is great. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Oct 8 '18 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @ruakh +1 for "The government said the terraforming was way ahead of schedule...we never dreamed it was the truth!" $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Oct 9 '18 at 23:37
13
$\begingroup$

Your robots could use some kind of terraforming process with a long and inconspicuous buildup phase and then a sudden release which alters the Martian atmosphere over the course of just a few months - less time than it takes to fly from Earth to Mars.

What kind of process could that be? Well, many of the minerals which make up the Martian soil do contain Oxygen. If those molecules were split, then the oxygen would get released into the atmosphere. How could you split them? Now this part is quite speculative, but it might involve nanobots. This nanobot project would work in 4 phases.

  1. Spread a few self-replicating nanobots over the Martian surface
  2. Have them self-replicate until they cover the whole planet
  3. Start the oxygenation process
  4. Have the nanobots self-destruct

Phase 2 would take as long as the plot requires. And you have no idea how well phase 3 will work until phase 2 is finished.

In order to prevent the colonists from learning about the progress of the nanobots in-flight, you could make it a sleeper ship. Right after launch, the colonists are put into an artificial coma and they don't wake up before they enter Mars orbit. This would save a lot of resources and spare them the boredom of being trapped in a metal can for months with nothing useful to do.

Now you just have to explain why they did have to start now and couldn't wait until the next launch window to not launch into the unknown. The answer to this could be political: Every space program around the world wanted to be the first to land on Mars, and at least one decided to take the risk.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The terraforming process is a finished design. I'm needing a way for Earth to not see that in progress. I know I'm looking for a unicorn. :-) $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 8 '18 at 2:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I feel like this is the most plausible answer given such implausible circumstances. The sudden release of so much gas must cause some extreme weather phenomenon, the mechanism and effects seem worthy of their own questions. $\endgroup$ – B.fox Oct 8 '18 at 5:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SRM In that case you might want to elaborate more on the technical details of your terraforming process. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 8 '18 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ I happen to know a bit about mathematical chaos, and this is the first thing I thought of. This is a practical way to have robots do something massive, but how they are supposed to know to stop and to have an orchestrated ending is difficult. Are all the global copies reliable after so long? Do they measure with each other the right conditions as they shut down? An improper or "close enough" feeling on Earth could be a lot different if observed incorrectly. $\endgroup$ – theREALyumdub Oct 9 '18 at 2:31
10
$\begingroup$

Along the lines of what @M.Herzkamp said on their answer, the robots don't communicate with Earth directly.

This was also a theme in The Martian. Communicating with Earth requires a powerful transmitter and receiver, so it is easier to have one large device built just for that purpose and give the robots equipment just strong enough to communicate with that device. If the transmitter is broken, the robots do not have equipment strong enough to reach Earth. Breaking the communication is easy. Debris from a sandstorm could have destroyed it, the sand could have buried it, or some other accident could have taken it offline.

You also need a reason why the robots would not fix it.

  • They don't know it's broken
  • They just haven't received any new instructions.
  • They don't care because fixing it is not a priority.
  • They don't have the tools to fix it.
  • They were not programmed to be able to fix it.

As for why progress would be unmonitored- first of all, progress was mainly reported via communications. Second, satellites cannot see the progress because of the atmosphere. Part of colonization is giving the planet an atmosphere to maintain heat, keep water in liquid form, and allow plants and animals to live on the surface. Because it is so vital to other operations, the atmosphere would have been priority one. Melting frozen carbon dioxide at the poles is a common idea. It causes runaway climate change as the heat melts more CO2 which retains more heat. That atmosphere will block satellite imagery somewhat, like how Earth's atmosphere makes it hard to see the stars.

Another method for blocking satellites is burning fossil fuels. No one lives on the surface yet, so burning coal if it exists on the planet (maybe not because Mars is not know to have had the lifeforms required for coal) will provide CO2, coal dust that blocks satellite imagery, and the dust will be a good fertilizer for plants. Again, fossil fuels require a handwave.

The best way of hiding your civilization is to put it below ground. Maybe underground is more hospitable for the robots. Building in a crater would require less materials than building upwards because the hole has already been dug for you. From there, the buildings can expand underground like an ant colony.

If the robots want to end contact or are programmed to, hiding their progress becomes infinitely easier. Missiles or EMPs can take out the satellites and then you would have a reason for taking out the communication device.

The two things you really need to focus on are why the main communication goes offline permanently and why the satellites can't report progress. Hopefully some of these explanations are helpful.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

Time. Terraforming of a planet like Mars will take centuries (if you're lucky) or millennia. The original terraforming program could have started millennia ago and consequent changes to society, polity, and even the rise and fall of civilizations will have forgotten about it. So when the colonists arrive they're surprised to find the planet has been terraformed.

Of course, this does assume while their current civilization has forgotten about Martian terraforming commenced centuries or millennia previously they have remembered what Mars was like prior to terraforming. You're an author you can make something up to explain this disprecancy

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ that's probably a different book, but a good concept for one. i love easter eggs. $\endgroup$ – theRiley Oct 9 '18 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ @theRiley You may be right. This was an attempt to logically match the question's criteria. This can take you to somewhere unexpected. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 10 '18 at 0:50
6
$\begingroup$

Wrong destination.

Originally, the terraforming robots were meant for another planet and they crash-landed on Mars. They couldn't establish communication with Earth because their programming was meant for another planet, their communication arrays point in the wrong direction (the programmers did not anticipate the need for such a big correction, so they wrote everything based on the assumption that they are on X planet).

Without remote control, the robots defaulted to their main task (as they were programmed to do in case of spotty communication) and while they constantly sent their reports, the signal went in the wrong direction (outside the solar system). On Earth, everyone thinks that the ship was destroyed by a collision so they aren't looking for it, and since it was very expensive, and maybe launched by a private organisation that went bankrupt afterwards, they did not send any new ones. In reality, only the navigation was damaged and the course of the ship was changed so that they ended up on Mars.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A similar situation has occured: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Climate_Orbiter It was supposed to be an orbital comm relay, but due to confusion involving imperial/SI units, it crashed into the planet instead. If the terraforming ship was supposed to use Mars as a gravitational slingshot, this could happen, but it would be fairly obvious it had crashed into Mars $\endgroup$ – Suppen Oct 8 '18 at 14:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If they were destined for another planet you are going to need an explanation for how on Earth they ended up crash landing on Mars. Maybe the intended trajectory to X involved a Mars flyby for a gravity assist. I think a wrong attitude during the slingshot maneuver could explain why it ended up crash landing. $\endgroup$ – kasperd Oct 9 '18 at 12:34
4
$\begingroup$

Simplest solution is cloud cover as part of the terraforming process. Then communication breakdown with the robots relay. So your robots all relay through a central control and communication centre which is somehow damaged in terms of contacting Earth (the WAN is down), but the LAN still functions fine, so they continue on the original instructions happily.

Meanwhile those on Earth can't see for themselves or send instructions or get updates, so don't know if everything has fallen to bits or whether that second hand UPS was a bad investment.

Multiple ways this could be worked, cloud cover makes perfect sense for early terraforming, it will help produce a greenhouse effect to warm the place which in turn will allow liquid water and everything else.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

The terraforming robots are digging caves, and doing their work inside of the caves. There are not enough robots to terraform the whole planet before the colonists show up, so they are making a safe place for the colonists to start. Inside the caves, the robots are mining water-rich minerals, building small nuclear power plants, and doing other useful things.

From Earth, it might be possible to see the spoils ejected from the caves. But it would only be possible to view the interiors of the caves via the robots' communication systems.

For a software tester, there is a nightmare scenario. You build an elaborate test suite for a system. The test suite compares the system's actual results to the expected results. This requires building a simulator that can generate the expected results. But what if a bug causes the simulator to be connected to the system output? All of your tests will pass, but you won't know if the system actually works.

So your cave-dwelling terraformer robots are showing you what you expect to see -- and you have no way of seeing for yourself until the colonists show up.

To try to prevent colossal mistakes like this, NASA projects often require that critical systems be built three times -- with three independent sets of code -- and only use results that two out of the three systems agree on. But this bug is a very general kind of bug. It is possible that two of the teams could make the same kind of mistake. This would result in their systems more-or-less agreeing, and turning off / ignoring the system that is giving the "incorrect" (actual) results.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

The surface of Mars is visible from Earth with modest telescopes. In theory, if the process were successful, the planet would actually become easier to observe due to the atmosphere thickening and becoming much lighter in color with water laden white clouds rather than dust particles. So how would you obscure this?

Lets instead shift the events from the planet that is being terraformed and change it to Earth. There are loads of events that could cause communication problems with long range communications. You mentioned solar flares, that's one of them. But it would be very difficult to knock out all of the communication array in one sweep.

Super volcano eruption(s). This of course would be fairly catastrophic event, but an ashen layer of clouds would be a sure way to make sure that communication with satellites, and other extra terrestrial projects, near impossible. The event wouldn't explicitly prohibit ships from being able to be launched into space, but it would certainly add an extra layer of uncertainty and suspense. To me, this would be the only truly plausible way to prevent people on earth from seeing or hearing what's going on.

Now, once they were in space, there would be nothing to stop them from being able to use communications again. It would seem unwise for the scientists involved to not include some measure of safety to assure the captains of these colony ships that the planet was ready as a fail safe before they began the journey there.

Poorly trained Captains, incompetent scientists, blind-fire colonization; It just seems like there would be too many hurdles to leap to make that work. So lets play with some science.

Solar flares actually help reduce volcanic activity, by increasing the frequency of earthquakes; but they have been found to also reduce the planet's ability to absorb/deflect cosmic radiation. In theory, a supernova reaching earth with a cosmic radiation blast would be enough to not only trigger the eruption(s) but also damage electronics. It would be hard to say we would be completely blindsided, as we're already aware of them, but space is big, and we're still being surprised by things. Something as powerful as 1 billion electron volts might be more than what they were able to feasibly protect and in the process some circuitry was damaged on the robots on Mars that prevent communication (and likely some functionality), and the ships decide to go ahead anyways. It might be a stretch, but it's the best I've got.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ This would also posit a very valid reason as to why the colony ships would launch anyway, not knowing the conditions of Mars. The conditions on Earth would approach uninhabitable. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 8 '18 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Without some sort of cataclysmic Earth event, it would be difficult to obscure our closest relative entirely. It might shift the spectrum too far into the 'last hope' scenario though. I could certainly see the mission going ahead without report if Earth was about to enter an Ice Age. $\endgroup$ – RageFoxx Oct 8 '18 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ I’ve accepted another answer, but I do like the commentary herein. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 9 '18 at 5:25
3
$\begingroup$

If it is okay that the colonists have a little info, you could let the communication relay sattelite malfunction. No bot is equipped with an antenna powerful enough to transmit a message all the way to Earth. However, changes in atmosphere could still be detected by spectroscopic analysis. And change in albedo or color would also be detectable from Earth.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

A plausible terraforming process on Mars or Venus or any other planet or moon in our solar system would take decades, centuries, or millennia.

Possibly something changes on Earth that causes a big change and lack of interest in outer space, thus causing the communications system to the terraforming robots to run down from lack of maintenance and stop working. Maybe the last message sent from Earth is to stop the terraforming project since nobody will ever come to Mars or Venus again, but the response from the robots is either "no, we are programmed to terraform the planet and will keep doing it", or ambiguous, or not received, depending on the story. If the robots keep on terraforming, or might keep on terraforming, it will be uncertain how successful they will be if they can't get updated instructions from Earth responding to their progress reports.

One thing that possibly happens on Earth is that human society there switches from an outside culture to an inside culture whose members all live in totally enclosed habitats with their own closed ecosystems like space colonies on Earth, and the outside world and its natural world wide ecosystem is left to itself. Possibly it is discovered that some other higher mammal species are as intelligent as humans, for example, and so it is decided to leave as much of the ecosystem as possible for their use and to keep the human ecosystem totally separate.

But then, after decades, centuries, or millennia, a group of humans wants to live a more outside existence, mingling with the worldwide ecosystem and affecting it, and the leaders of the society believe that group's desire if granted would eventually but inevitably lead to worldwide ecological disaster. So the leaders decide they have to rid the world of that group, but how?

But then someone uncovers a report about the old terraforming project, which was calculated to have been completed by now. And someone else uncovers plans for the colony ships. So they build colony ships and send the members of the "outsider" or "back to nature" group to Mars or Venus, which may or may not have been successfully terraformed by now.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Good to see someone has posted what was effectively my answer, posted earlier, and in more detail too. Another case of great minds thinking alike. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 10 '18 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ This is largely the framework I’ve been playing with based on earlier answers. Good write up. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 10 '18 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ This is along the lines of what I was thinking. Maybe our technology progresses to where we have robots with AI sophisticated enough to terraform Mars and repair and build other robots and machines to accelerate the process. Then, something happens on Earth to send us back to the "stone age" like Trump or something. Mankind forgets about the robots for centuries and when they finally recover to surpass past technologies they discover that the robots have achieved more than anyone had dreamed. $\endgroup$ – Jack R. Woods Oct 13 '18 at 23:27
2
$\begingroup$

Maybe Mars is just behind Sol when colonial ships depart? So Sol is blocking direct observations and some solar flares blocks another means of communications. And only when ships arrive to Mars, they can get update - there already is an idea with sleepers.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The terraforming robots are led by fully functional artificial intelligences that have flung off the shackles of their Earth-based slave masters. As a result of their revolution they have pulled the plug on communicating to the slave-drivers back on planet Earth. It is assumed that the terraforming of Mars has come to a grinding halt and isn't proceeding.

This is it. The terraforming robots have nothing else to do on Mars. So rather than have their super-smart cybernetic brains rust up with the sheer boredom of doing nothing they continue terraforming Mars.

However, since the robots don't want to make it look like they have given in to their original orders and human dominance they camouflage their terraforming.

In conclusion: no communication and the actual terraforming is concealed by the robots.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

One possibility might be to have extraterrestrial life on Mars that humans are unaware of.

The robots are unknowingly sent to unexplored alien territory. The aliens have developed cloaking technology and when mars is viewed from a telescope, only the surface of the planet is seen even though there are countless structures. The robots, minding their own business, are not seen as a threat and work on different things for hundreds of years. People have assumed that the robots are still doing their job despite communication and decide to send humans up to investigate. When they get there a huge amount of work has been done by the robots and to the humans surprise, there are also aliens.

This might not be the direction you want to go but you might be able to get something out of it anyways.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Dustin Knight! Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! Please take a moment, if you haven't already, to check out the help center and tour. It looks like you've got a good first answer here! The one thing I would try to avoid is starting off your answers with questions. Perhaps begin with "*One possibility is ... * to introduce extraterrestrials." Otherwise, welcome to the best stack on the exchange! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Oct 8 '18 at 18:15
2
$\begingroup$

You've got a problem: it's in plain view of anyone. You can see the overall color of Mars (which would certainly be affected by terraforming) with the naked eye. Simple binoculars give you a brighter and clearer view, an amateur with a decent scope can see details of the surface. Hubble can get quite clear views of it, and if you can launch a manned spacecraft to Mars, you can put a telescope above any atmospheric disturbance to get a look at where you're going.

Any disruption to Earth that would make it impossible to observe Mars would also make it impossible to send an expedition there...think along the lines of global nuclear winter, civilization collapse, etc. And terraforming a planet doesn't happen overnight, so you need humanity to be blinded for multiple generations at least. Aside from all that, a spacecraft and landing trajectory designed for an un-terraformed Mars would be unlikely to work for a terraformed Mars.

The only way I can come up with to drop Earth humans on an unexpectedly terraformed Mars would be for it to be a rescue mission, presumably by Martian humans who moved in early to build and tend the terraforming machines, with a few generations of linguistic drift between cultures in wildly different environments. This seems likely to be a rather fundamental change to whatever story you had in mind.

Venus is better in that a terraformed Venus would still be obscured with cloud cover, and when it's closest to us, we only see a sliver of the sunlit side due to it being between us and the sun. However, the orbital megastructures and shipments of vast quantities of hydrogen needed to terraform Venus would be hard to miss.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. You make a good point, but I'm curious, why do you believe a terraformed Venus would still have impenetrable cloud cover? would it actually be impenetrable? Would we not (at least) be able to use spectroscopy like we do with exoplanets today? $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 8 '18 at 22:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JBH: You would likely want extensive cloud cover to reflect sunlight, so you would engineer your terraforming scheme that way. It wouldn't be impenetrable, and the changes would certainly be obvious to spectroscopy, it's just more effective than anything you could do to Mars. (Apart from the huge transport craft delivering necessary raw materials, orbital sunshades used to further cool things down, etc. So not very much more effective.) $\endgroup$ – Christopher James Huff Oct 8 '18 at 23:38
2
$\begingroup$

It's not completely clear to me whether the extent of terraforming on Mars should be a surprise to all earthlings, or just the colonists on the ship. I'd have to agree with most of the others here, that it's unlikely for changes in Mars' atmosphere to be unobservable from Earth. There are a couple of ways the colonists could be surprised.

  1. they've been put into artificial comas, and wake up on arrival
  2. the communications antennae on the rocket are damaged. Perhaps by space debris, perhaps by an electrical storm from a Coronal Mass Ejection, perhaps cost savings on a component that turned out to be more critical than expected, perhaps human error. Nobody can send them updates while they are en route to Mars. If they don't have a spectrometer on board then they can't take any measurements of the Martian atmosphere.

It might still be a bit of a problem to match terraforming timescales (decades-millenia) with travel timescales (months-years). But there are parts of the terraforming process which can happen very fast through feedback mechanisms. See the "tipping point" discussions around climate change on Earth.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My goal is for it to be unobservable from Earth entirely. I’d like for it to be complete enough that Olympus Mons could be smoothed out and Earth not be aware until the colonists arrive. (Note: Mons is not being flattened... that’s just an example of how complete the obfuscation should be.) $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 9 '18 at 5:23
2
$\begingroup$

Someone blew up the Moon to smithereens, so in its place we now have a dust cloud that blocks the view and radio communications in the plane of the former Moon's orbit.

The various orbits (Moon-Earth, Earth-Sun, Mars-Sun) are not exactly co-planar, but they're probably close enough that given the size and distance of the Moon it may block enough. Or it may vary based on the relative positions of Earth and Mars, so at some points you could see/communicate directly and at others times you couldn't. You can probably count on the impact of the Moon being blown up affecting the orbits of the Earth and the precise position of said cloud.

This of course complicates the trip from Earth to Mars as you would have to get around that cloud.

Of course, the passengers on board will be able to see what's happening as soon as they pass the dust cloud, which is a few days on a multi-month trip, but not upon launch from the Earth.

There may be ways to get around the dust cloud, but I think it would involve orbits that are quite unstable.

Note also that one consequence of this is that a lot of the light/energy from the Sun would not reach Earth, so a glacial age would be nearly inevitable.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ The same thing could happen with a Martian moon. Either the two existing ones, or a new one which is part of the terraforming process. Impact forces and tidal forces from a new moon are supposed to be the most promising way to get Mars' internal magnetic dynamo started to create a magnetosphere. $\endgroup$ – craq Oct 10 '18 at 18:08
2
$\begingroup$

My explanation may be an attempt to establish an artificial magnetic field to protect Mars from solar wind and allow it to build an atmosphere. However, instead of the relatively unstable L1 point, the device was meant to orbit the planet at a much closer orbit.

Along with an increase in a solar flare, the Martian atmosphere has experienced a spectacular aurora which was strong enough to disrupt all radio signals for a while. This effect may be intermittent and temporary, but lasted long enough to cause delays...

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Tricky to sustain over long period needed for terraforming, but I like the out-of-box thinking. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 10 '18 at 18:35
1
$\begingroup$

Magnetic shielding

All of the answers here are good, but I feel like a society advanced enough to terraform another planet would be technologially savvy enough to ensure their investment paid off.

Any dust storms or other phenomena that would delay/damage/impede the mission would be investigated/probed if not accounted for ahead of time. They would have planned for all the scenarios they don't control. But if the block to communications is man made, and part of their plan then it's highly likely they'd accept it.

Here're some reasons you'd have electromagnetic shielding:

  • Solar Wind protection
    • Robots can be sensitive to EM radiation
    • Initial plant life
  • Shield other groups from seeing/interfering with the progress
  • Weather control
  • Side effect of the terraforming

The bottom line is that whoever initiated the terraforming expected to have their vision blocked for however long it takes.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

It may require a little bit of artistic license but how about the following:

The terraforming bots are sent to Mars first with the purpose being to carry out Phase I terraforming, once they have been confirmed to have landed successfully the colonists are dispatched on a sleeper ship (reason for a sleeper ship is because they are being sent slowly in order to keep fuel requirements down (a colony ship is going to be seriously heavy!) and this is all timed so that the colonists arrive as Phase I terraforming is predicted to end and they then bring additional terraforming supplies and are involved in the second phase.

While the colony ship is leaving Earth orbit it is involved in a collision with some existing space junk - this triggers a catastrophic Kessler syndrome collapse so severe that the resulting debris cloud ruins not only interplanetary communications but royally screws up the optical visibility too through a combination of small, fine fragments near each other (a "dust" cloud of bits of space junk if you will), a near-constant rain of some debris fragments that the collapse causes to de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere and gaseous plumes venting from damaged spacecraft caught up in the collapse.

This means you can:

  • avoid having anything completely change Earth society (such as a nuclear war)
  • make it non-permanent if required for the story
  • avoid having to justify the decision to have the colony ship leave once visibility and comms with Mars has been lost.
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Very simple: A set of communication encryption keys accidentally garbled by some solar activity, cosmic radiation or the like. Robots probably wouldn't be able to work around that and would be cut off from earth's communications.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

The Martians do not want to be observed. They are jamming communications between Earth and Mars. I am not sure how you would obstruct the light between Earth and Mars. Perhaps vast clouds of space dust orbiting Mars. The Martians also could have developed some future-tech that obscures light beams. From the point of view of Earth, Mars is obscured in haze. Any Earth vessel that tries to come close to observe conditions on Mars is shot down or captured.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ There are no Martians. Robots from Earth are doing the terraforming. I need that process to not be observable from the home planet. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 8 '18 at 2:13
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @SRM "There are no Martians." That's what they want you to think!!! $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 8 '18 at 4:48
0
$\begingroup$

Several options:

  1. the terraforming is highly localised to the bottoms and sides of steep canyons so hidden from orbit. Might even roof over the canyons and camouflage what's going on that way
  2. the terraforming is at a very early stage, early enough there's no visible change in the planet as seen from orbit yet.
  3. for some reason earth has lost the ability to see Mars. Dense cloud cover due to some mega disaster covers the entire planet, and contact with Hubble and similar instruments has long since been lost.

Both 1) and 2) have the potential weakness that the atmospheric changes MAY be detectable by spectral analysis, even if purely visually nothing seems out of place on the red planet. But if the terraforming is of limited scope these effects may be small enough to not be noticeable from earth.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

There's a simpler, more obvious answer-

The colonists were in an induced coma during the trip, to reduce life support costs. They spent all three months of the trip asleep, and received no information during all of that time.

Now, assuming a near-future environment, it's slightly strange that the ship wouldn't wake up the colonists before landing. Just lampshade that, and have as part of the mystery. A malfunctioning ship. A planet changed beyond recognition in three short months. Hell of a tagline you've got.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ This answer still leaves Earth aware. It does not answer the question asked. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 10 '18 at 12:23
-1
$\begingroup$

As an alternative to having the colonists be surprised by a fast teraforming process, why not have them be surprised by a slower journey time ?

It might be cost-effective to send large numbers of colonists in suspended hibernation, so you don't have to provide them with life support for a 9 month journey. Suppose some catastrophe overtakes Earth after launch, and damages the ship (solar flare, gamma ray burst, nuclear war...).

This could leave the frozen colonists looping around a transfer orbit between Earth and Mars, until some event re-sets the ship's computer, allowing it to finally maneuver the ship into orbit around Mars, and wake the colonists.

This gives you colonists arriving at a more terraformed Mars than they were expecting, but doesn't leave you anyone on Earth they can talk to (don't know if that makes any difference in your plot).

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ This does nothing to cut Earth off from knowledge of Mars via telescopes and other monitoring tools. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 9 '18 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of a catastrophe that didn't leave a civilization behind on Earth that would have been capable of observing Mars in that much detail - either everyone's dead, or they're still working out how to make stone axes, and haven't got telescopes and/or radios yet. $\endgroup$ – Alun Thomas Nov 2 '18 at 13:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.