10
$\begingroup$

Far in the future technology has evolved to the point that humanity is able to try and terraform something in our solar system.

The moon is out, since it's too close to earth and therefore to risky, since we don't want any debris raining down on our home (assuming we use techniques like dropping comets and such). Also, all governments are already invested with industry on it and don't want that destroyed.

Mars is out, too, because we already established colonies of domes there and no one wants these destroyed / or unusable for a time either.

Which other place in our solar system is most suited for terraforming?

There are a lot of Saturn's and Jupiter's moons mentioned in the general listing of possible places, or Venus, but I have not been able to find an answer of the "most fit" or "least work to do".

Edit: This question aims specifically towards terraforming and not only colonization.

Edit II: And this question excludes earth as an answer as well. In my understanding the word terraforming (="to make like earth") implicates that earth already exists. A good point that there is room for improvement, though.

$\endgroup$
  • 32
    $\begingroup$ I'd say "The Earth" ;-) $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 20 at 9:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime That was my first thought too (before I saw your comment). $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 20 at 13:12
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Re-read paragraph four of the question. While the phrase "most fit" may lack a certain degree of precision, it is comprehensible in relation to other statements in the question. Posters here usually use natural language, and careful reading does lead to clarity. $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 20 at 13:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Where in the solar system is the most viable place to put my colonists, after Mars and Luna? $\endgroup$ – Village Sep 21 at 2:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime, apart from a minor technicality that Terraform means "to make like Earth" $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 21 at 16:00
13
$\begingroup$

I know you said "But mars is out" But it really isn't.

Mars is out, too, because we already established colonies of domes there and no one wants these destroyed / or unusable for a time either.

You probably didn't establish colonies of domes. If you had the materials to withstand micrometeorites and the radiation issues from being on the surface of mars, then you've basically either already solved the terraforming issue on mars, or you've got the technology to terraform most arbitrary bodies in our solar system.

Just building domes in an un-terraformed mars is far more likely to result in habitats becoming "destroyed or unusable for a time" because of collisions with micrometeorites not burnt up in a thick-ish atmosphere and radiation frying hardware, people, and the structures themselves.

You know what stops these two issues? Lots and lots of rocks. What you would have probably built were underground structures, full stop. No radiation issues, no meteorite issues, and you don't even have to terraform. This also presents even less issue to worry about terraforming making the colony structures unusable.

As for the terraforming issues of mars, people often cite solar wind as a huge hurdle for terraforming mars due to its thin atmosphere. Solar wind has the effect of exciting air molecules enough to escape the gravity of a planet, and presents a radiation risk, but it appears that there are reasonable solutions to this problem ie not outside of current tech.

During the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop[23] in late February 2017, NASA scientist Jim Green proposed a concept of placing a magnetic dipole field between the planet and the Sun to protect it from high-energy solar particles. It would be located at the L1 orbit at about 320 R♂. The field would need to be "Earth comparable" and sustain 50000 nT as measured at 1 Earth-radius. The paper abstract cites that this could be achieved by a magnet with a strength of 1–2 teslas (10,000–20,000 gauss).[65] If constructed, the shield may allow the planet to restore its atmosphere. Simulations indicate that within years, the planet would be able to achieve half the atmospheric pressure of Earth.

The "half of earths pressure" idea may or may not be realistic, but there are other ways to deal with this that I'll get to.

Then with that comes the issue of the fact that mars's gravity is simply much weaker than earths, and particles can escape the atmosphere on their own. Combine that with the fact that mars is much colder on average compared to earth, it appears that this will be accelerated when trying to heat up the planet with the terraforming process.

enter image description here Source

I asked a question about this a while back on space exploration, and the conclusion I got was interesting:

it appears that water loss reasoning is in contention, and that the primary method of loss may have been through the weaker gravity, and not solar wind at all.

The loss of these particles regardless happened over hundreds of millions to billions of years.

At the same time that same magnetic energy release powered a much stronger Solar Wind. The protons and other ions of the Solar Wind cause all the non-Jeans Escape processes listed in the Table above. Collectively several metres of water and perhaps 80 millibars of Carbon Dioxide would be lost over 4.2 billion years – at current rates of loss. As the bare minimum for terraforming is about ~300 millibars of carbon dioxide (equivalent to about 250 millibars of Oxygen) this doesn’t seem like a show stopper for terraforming. If we can supply modern day Mars with ~300 millibars in a few hundred years, then replacing 80 millibars in 4 billion doesn’t seem excessive.

If we were to provide mars with atmosphere, it might go away in 500 million years, but is that really that big of a deal on a human timescale?

So solar wind is not a problem on mars. Neither is losing atmosphere we get on mars. So what are the issues left?

  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Inert gas composition
  • Sunlight
  • Temperature
  • Plantlife

Atmospheric pressure

With out proper atmospheric pressure, water, and you, will boil when exposed to the martian atmosphere directly. Liquid water will just boil off which is a non starter. If the lagrange point solar wind protector doesn't actually build up the atmosphere to half of earths, then here are your other options:

  • you'll need to manually use mars's own materials to do so ie through some industrial extraction. This is probably possible in human timescales but there still may not be enough atmosphere.

  • you'll need to crash meteorites into mars to release enough gasses. Your colonies should probably be fine (they are underground after all!), and if you already have meteorite mining tech, you shouldn't have too much trouble making this happen. It will just take a long time to take asteroids off course to make them land on mars (100 years), and cut them up into enough smaller pieces that they don't accidentally blast more molecules than they insert onto mars, and don't put giant holes in mars itself. This is also farther outside our current tech.

  • you'll need to transport gases from other planets instead of meteorites, this could take a bit longer, depending on how feasible it is to capture these gases and move them to mars. This is also pretty far outside of current tech.

You can also do any of these solutions part way, and then dig a deep hole in the planet, where air pressure is large, making open air environment at least for the hole you made in the ground. If you, say, could only manage to make mars's atmosphere 1/8 of air pressure at normal breathable points (ie 1/8 * 500 millibars, not the full 1000 at sea level, aka 62.5 millibars), you could actually just dig a hole so that you had 8 x the amount of air above you that you would have at sea level. That would be a really deep hole, but with much less volcanic activity, it is possible you could dig many times deeper on mars than you could on earth with out heat issues, and with less gravity, rocks may be easier to get through at a certain level. You could then wait for a full terraform if need be. Increased pressure from above should make air below even more dense at higher pressures, so I don't believe the hole would need to scale linearly with the mass of air above the column, ie if hole B is 2x as deep as hole A, it would have more than double the air pressure. This is different than water which mostly has linear increase in pressure because air/gas is much more highly compressible. We can see this in this chart:

  • sea level is 14.7 psi,
  • 10,000 feet is 10.2 PSI, 4.5 psi change
  • 20,000 feet is 6.4 PSI, 3.8 psi change
  • 30,000 feet is 4.3 PSI, 2.1 psi change
  • 40,000 feet is 2.7 PSI, 1.6 psi change
  • 50,000 feet is 1.6 PSI, 1.1 psi change

enter image description here

Exponential gains would be made with deeper holes.

Inert gas composition

The composition of these gases that we use to pressurize the planet also matters. The composition of the atmosphere would need a lot of nitrogen, as the rest of the gasses that might work have adverse side effects, will escape the atmosphere easier or are much harder to collect. With out such inert gases, gases like Co2 will poison us in the concentrations required to make mars with an earth like atmosphere, similar story for O2.

We may be able to focus harder to find gases on mars like nitrogen in a smaller area if we use the hole idea, though we would still need some endgame to get nitrogen to the whole planet if we want everything terraformed.

Sunlight

The sunlight mars receives is significantly lower than earths, 44% of earths per unit area. However:

  • many plants actually don't do well in direct sunlight (both in water and out) and actually prefer lower light.
  • plants are primarily Co2 limited in many ecosystems, not light limited. Too much light energy actually damages plants. Plants will avoid trying to get all energy in all wavelengths of light because too much energy will destroy their chloroplasts and surrounding cells.

So from just the sunlight perspective, it isn't an issue for many earth plants, though they may be focused at the equator and smaller at the start.

Temperature

The bigger issue here is heat (at least for plant life). Mars is significantly colder than earth (though maybe not as cold as you would think):

Differing in situ values have been reported for the average temperature on Mars,[22] with a common value being −63 °C (210 K; −81 °F).[23][24] Surface temperatures may reach a high of about 20 °C (293 K; 68 °F) at noon, at the equator, and a low of about −153 °C (120 K; −243 °F) at the poles

About the only real way to really heat up mars is to thicken its atmosphere to get a greenhouse effect. One thing to note, 95 % of mars's atmosphere is CO2, while 0.0407% of earths is CO2. Average surface pressure on mars is 610 Pa, but pressure is affected by many factors including temp, so this is highly inaccurate, but if you compared this directly with earths 101325 Pa pressure, if we increase the pressure on mars by the increase in gravity to reach earth gravity, (1/.38 = 2.63...) we get 1605 * 95% to get 1525 pa, and then we get 1525/101325 = 0.01505% ... a very rough approximation of the comparison of the CO2 per unit area of mars if compared to the atmosphere of earth. This is less than half the amount of CO2 on earth. We would probably need to extract more CO2 from mars and get other greenhouse gases like methane to increase the greenhouse effect.

Plantlife

Okay, assuming we solved all the other issues here, we would still have a few more hurdles:

  • Plants still need oxygen.

  • Plants need good soil/medium to grow in.

The first part might be surprising, but you can actually suffocate many terrestrial plants in water if you completely submerge their roots, and especially so if you submerge the whole thing. To solve this you would need to bring Cyanobacteria to mars (aka blue green algae). This isn't a big deal (cyanobacteria multiply fast) except you would need to have lots of water surface area for them to colonize. You would then need to create an equilibrium with plants quickly after. You would probably need to grow both in isolation before releasing to make sure you hit a good equilibrium (not suck all the co2 out of the air and leave none for the plants). Then you could introduce other kinds of co2 producing organisms, probably more than just people. We'll get to this in a bit.

Soil is another story. You can't just use martian soil because it has virtually nothing that plants can use and is toxic to most plants and living organisms. Now, if you completed the previous steps, you might have lakes/oceans which might be big enough to cover lots of the planet with 35 meter oceans. This is fine, we don't need the Mariana trench for this to work. Then instead of putting plants in soil, you can just use water plants/algae for the time being, where the cyanobacteria are sitting.

In addition to that, we'll need organic material to fertilize the plants. This comes from both the cyanobacteria and invertebrate aquatic organisms that can feed on algae, like daphnea, but might even include snails, shrimp, etc... These can grow and exist in extremely limited environments already. These animals are already used to living in environments that emulate "low G" (water), thus should at least feel quite at home in martian gravity. They also require very little to live. A small 20 ounce cup with algae is enough to sustain these creatures (though they also need a proper atmosphere). What will happen is the waste from these creatures will be used the fertilize plants, and will gradually build up on shores, where other types of plants will eventually be able to take root, and a slow process of plants + other animals being introduced will allow finishing the terraforming process.

The hardest part for us right now is air pressure, assuming we can't find proper gas sources for this on mars. Otherwise we might actually have the technology, or close to it, today to complete this process in a couple hundred years.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This answer deserves a bounty. $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 20 at 23:55
19
$\begingroup$

If you want an Earthlike planet, and Mars is out, Venus is the only option. No other rocky body has gravity high enough to hold an atmosphere, especially close to the Sun where the solar wind is strong. (Titan is far enough away to not make this an issue, but it is VERY cold). It won't be easy, though.

It would require removing most of the atmosphere, which has a mass 93 times that of Earth's and consists mostly of carbon dioxide (96.5%) with the remainder being nitrogen. You would want to keep the nitrogen and remove all the carbon dioxide, but this sort of filtering might well be practically impossible. After that, you would have to add oxygen, though it is possible that the introduction of algae could turn some carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Venus is also way outside the habitable "Goldilocks" zone (too close to the sun), so it would either have to be moved quite a bit farther out (a huge endeavour) or be shielded from a lot of the sunlight it receives, e.g. with orbiting reflectors (which could double as energy collectors).

Venus also rotates very slowly, making for very long days and nights (there are two days to a Venus year) with extreme temperature differences between day and night. I suppose some of the solar reflectors mentioned above could direct some sunlight to the night side, but this would go against the purpose of limiting infall of sunlight.

It might be feasible with sufficiently advanced technology to direct a large number of comets towards Venus, where they would impact off-centre, increasing the planet's rotation while adding water to the atmosphere and eventually the surface. Hopefully, these impacts could strip off some atmosphere as well, but you would probably also need to kind of atmosphere cannon that compresses the carbon dioxide and shoots it off the planet. A problem may be that, given the mass of Venus, more comets would be needed than exist in the solar system without going out to the Oort Cloud (which is very far out).

Then there is the problem of Venus' very weak magnetic field, which provides negligible protection against cosmic radiation and particle radiation from the sun. Even if you provided Venus with an earthlike atmosphere, it would not be safe to stay outside for very long.

Given all these issues, I don't think it would ever be worthwhile to terraform Venus (or any other body in the Solar System, including Mars) when it is so much easier to create artificial rotating habitats built from asteroids or Kuiper Belt object. There's plenty of water ice out there from which oxygen can be created, and the nitrogen in our atmosphere could be replaced with helium, the second-most common element in the universe. The shells of these habitats would protect the inside from radiation and micro-meteorites, and you could have whatever climate you want inside. Given the amount of material to built such habitats from, you could easily house trillions of people, compared to a measly tens of billions on a terraformed Venus.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Then there is the problem of Venus' very weak magnetic field" - if you spin up Venus, its magnetic field should kick up accordingly just fine. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Sep 20 at 16:14
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Venus also rotates very slowly, making for very long days and nights (there are two days to a Venus year) with extreme temperature differences between day and night" Could you provide a source? It is my understanding that there is very little difference between nightime and daytime temperatures on Venus due to the atmosphere not allowing the night side to cool off. Wikipedia agrees with me: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus $\endgroup$ – Hoog Sep 20 at 17:12
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Hoog - It's possible Klaus was referring to the situation after the atmosphere has been thinned out to Earth-normal. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 20 at 17:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak "if you spin up Venus, its magnetic field should kick up accordingly just fine" - I'm not sure; wikipedia seems to disagree: "The core is thought to be electrically conductive and, although its rotation is often thought to be too slow, simulations show it is adequate to produce a dynamo. This implies that the dynamo is missing because of a lack of convection in Venus's core." $\endgroup$ – marcelm Sep 20 at 17:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Radiation protection is mostly from the mass of the atmosphere. If the Earth lost its magnetic field right now, there would be a slight uptick of skin cancer. Note that the magnetic field reverses "often" on geologic timescales, and during this process the magnetic field goes away for periods of time. There are no mass extinctions that accompany these events. $\endgroup$ – Harabeck Sep 20 at 21:03
12
$\begingroup$

The most suitable, and underrated planet is Earth!

And that's not just a joke answer. Even building habitations in Antarctica is 1000x easier to permanently settle than spending Trillions of dollars to get a manned base on Mars (or any other Solar System planet).

Antarctica has breathable air. It has water. It has protection from cosmic radiation. If something goes wrong, it can be resupplied.

Currently, 95% of the worlds population sits on just 10% of the land area. There are vast tracts of land still unsettled across the world. Even building floating cities on the Oceans would be far far easier than terraforming the other planets.

enter image description here

Full size link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#/media/File:World_population_density_1994.png

$\endgroup$
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Even changing the Sahara desert into a lush green temperate paradise would be orders of magnitude easier than terraforming any planet. $\endgroup$ – vsz Sep 21 at 9:11
3
$\begingroup$

If you are terraforming your first planet, you are probably K-type 1 to 2 civilization -- see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale

So, Titan. Heat isn't a problem. Cooling stuff off is often harder than warming things up. Gravity is hard.

Spinning up Venus, for example, is going to cost in the neighborhood of 10^29 J, or 10^12 seconds of a K1 civilization's power budget: a 30,000 year project.

Serious terraforming takes serious energy. And serious energy makes being cold a trivial problem.

The two hardest things are (a) getting rid of waste heat, and (b) gravity at a K1.5 civilization level.

Note that fuzing multiple planets into a larger one is going to result in a lot of debris and a lot of waste heat, and as mentioned, heat is annoying to get rid of.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

I question the need for terraforming at all.

Venus: install an extensive network of cloud colonies.

Comets: specifically, Dyson Trees.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Why colonize at all when you could just build O'Neill cylinders in space? $\endgroup$ – Surprised Dog Sep 21 at 21:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why question the question. This is a worldbuilding forum. Is curiosity not appreciated? $\endgroup$ – Backup Plan Sep 23 at 7:48

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.