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 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). 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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, with a common value being −63 °C (210 K; −81
°F). 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.
Okay, assuming we solved all the other issues here, we would still have a few more hurdles:
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.