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So, in my world (~Cyberpunk level of technology) humans are trying to either colonize or terraform Mars (both is fine, doesn't really matter that much for the story). But then, something needs to go wrong. Like, terribly wrong. It should go so wrong that for foreseeable future there would be no point in trying again.

One thing that I thought about is debris accumulation on an Earth orbit so high that it would be no longer possible to send spaceships safely. But if possible I would prefer for something that would just render Mars (even more) inhospitable.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome back to Worldbuilding! Unfortunately your question is too story-based and I have voted to close. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Dec 20, 2022 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ VTC:Too Story-Based. Storybuilding, the development of plot, circumstances, or character choices, is off-topic per the help center. Such questions are open-ended brainstorming leading to all answers having equal value (prohibited, see help center). Rule of thumb: if you can't remove the story entirely from the question and still have a question, it's not appropriate here. We only focus on building worlds and world rules. E.G., "What about Mars would make it difficult to terraform?" (worldbuilding) vs. "What could my characters do to make Mars difficult to terraform?" (storybuilding) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 20, 2022 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ @JamieB If Elas provides the terraforming concepts, then the question is worldbuilding. Elas did not provide those concepts, and that makes it storybuilding. Further, policing the rules is not an abuse of power. If you have a problem with anyone policing the rules, flag a moderator and bring it to their attention. And violating the rules is a really, really good reason to police the rules. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 21, 2022 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ Got to agree with @JamieB here. This is not story-based. It's looking for ways Mars might be rendered inhospitable, and providing some context for the kinds of activity that might be taking place there to cause it. It entirely fits with JHB's rule of thumb. There have been loads of this kind of VTC recently and it really conflicts with the guidance not to be 'too broad', and 'Questions need to include the setting/situation and the event or, the result you are trying to get to..' $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Dec 21, 2022 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Elas Here's the problem: because you have provided no limitation to the question that restricts it to only worldbuilding issues, I can legitimately answer it with things like, "political unrest results in nuclear bombs raining down from the sky" and "James Bond couldn't stop Blofeld from contaminating the soil with a life destroying bacteria." Neither of those answers are worldbuilding. They're storybuilding. Without limitations and conditions, you're just fishing for ideas (aka brainstorming), which the help center warns against. We'll help you build your world, not write your story. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 21, 2022 at 15:00

8 Answers 8

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Fraud, Incompetence and Malfeasance
Not exactly science fiction as it happens today in many high cost long-term projects across the globe. Any project that has a very high up-front cost with no near-term results expected will predictably attract grifters like any August outhouse attracts flies.

Expect there to be a litany of press reports on failure after failure and plot piled on plot to provide sub-standard equipment and non-existent expertise/services. The accumulated failures will starve any legitimate work of needed help, delaying the work by centuries to the point where whole populations revolt at the thought of spending another dime on the work.

As for what could go horribly wrong, take your pick! Abandoned bacteria cultures or experiments on the surface could mutate and break free. With nobody having budget to deal with them, they continue to mutate randomly producing highly poisonous toxins across all available micro-climates that could provide a toehold for humans.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah yes, a favorite of mine as well. There is literally nothing wrong with Mars. They could colonize it tomorrow. But first there's the commission on habitats to work through (a 12 year process), which keeps getting set back by environmentalist lawsuits (Save Mars!), the government keeps changing the regulations and tax codes (your work force must come from these countries with these percentages, no wait, these countries and these percentages, no wait...) Mars is rendered inhospitable by endless, shifting bureaucracy. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 21, 2022 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ Actually organizational failure despite everybody being both diligent and competent on their tasks are a recurring topic of Stanislaw Lem's hard-SF stories. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Dec 21, 2022 at 20:19
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Synthetic terraforming organisms

The idea was that custom made organisms would be dropped onto Mars. These organisms would use solar power to break carbon from Martian carbonates, reproduce themselves and spread over the planet, making it hospitable for life.

These engineered organisms were rightly recognized to be potentially dangerous and so their engineering took place in a spacecraft orbiting Mars. Containment failed and the organisms broke down the crew and much of the inside of the ship. The ship was then shot down but a few organisms survived re-entry.

They are doing a fine job terraforming Mars. Anything they touch also gets terraformed. Ships orbiting Mars have been infected by organisms apparently lofted in the wind. Attempts to sterilize the surface with weapons did kill 99.99% of the terraforming organisms but also warmed things up considerably, which released more water into the atmosphere. The terraforming organisms reclaimed Mars within a few months, faster than the first time.

No-one goes to Mars. No-one goes near Mars.

Inspiration: the Genesis Device from Star Trek II. https://youtu.be/52XlyMbxxh8?t=34

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    $\begingroup$ "Organisms" is a good word. Could be biological. Could be nanobots. Out of control nanobot swarms is a classic. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 20, 2022 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ Downvoted because the gray goo problem has already been solved in an earlier question. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Dec 20, 2022 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron this question is ... not connected to that one? Is that really a valid reason to downvote? Am I supposed to browse the entirety of SE:WB to make sure my answer isn't "invalidated" in the context of someone else's world? $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Dec 21, 2022 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ @BMF - Daron is just mad that his nanite destroying laser dino got deleted off of all the other questions where he used it as an answer. He is so mad he downvoted this answer twice! Even though everyone loves the laser dino. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 21, 2022 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ "The ship was then shot down" - In general, being shot down isn't a thing for orbiting vehicles. They don't deorbit unless slowed down using e.g. reaction engines or aerobraking. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2022 at 16:47
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Whoops, missed with the ice ball.

The plan: bring in a giant ice ball, probably from the Oort cloud, and use it to gently supply Mars with a steady supply of water. Perhaps we would build a space elevator for it. Or just leave it in orbit and haul it down as-needed, based on population growth. We don't need to flood the planet or anything, we just need a ready supply of water.

Oh. Slight problem. Tugboat #3 suffered an engine failure. This caused tugboat #6 to overload and shut down. Tugboat #11 tried to compensate and accidentally got locked into full throttle. Anyway, long story short, the ice ball is slightly off course and instead of nicely going into orbit, it's going to hit Mars at a very high rate of speed. Did we mention it's 250 miles wide? I mean we didn't want to keep going back for more water so we got one that would last. The good news is that the incredible orbital debris from this should settle down in a few hundred years and we can try again. And by "we" I mean maybe your grandchildren's children's children's children.

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    $\begingroup$ This would actually make Mars more habitable, not less. The massive injection of water and heat would kickstart a greenhouse effect and thicken the atmosphere. In fact, constantly bombarding Mars with comets is one of the modern day plans for terraforming. A 250 mile body would not be big enough to liquify the entire Martian surface. There are also no comets in the Oort cloud 250 miles wide, so it's not a particularly plausible situation to begin with. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Dec 21, 2022 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ @stix Really my main concern with my own answer is how long it would take debris to settle. With Mars not having much atmosphere, all that debris will rain down for X amount of time, causing continual problems for anyone trying to do anything there. Probably a mess in orbit too. I'm just not sure if "X" is 1 month, 1 year or 1000 years, but I'm betting it's "generations", anyway. Also not sure if you really need 250 miles. Presumably depends on how fast it's moving. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 21, 2022 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ @stix if my math is right, a 250 mi (400 km) wide ball of ice impacting at 3 km/s has about 1.2 billion trillion Joules of energy, 7 OOM below Mars' gravitational binding energy. Is that really not enough to liquify the surface? $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Dec 22, 2022 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @BMF A 250 mile wide ball of ice impacting at 3 km/s has 1.1e27 joules of energy. Mars's binding energy is 4.8x10^30J. However, you also have to take into account the amount of energy that will be dissipated in the Martian atmosphere and tidal effects. The ball of ice won't to hit Mars intact, nor is it likely to hit straight on. All of that breaking apart of the ice ball takes energy that won't go into Mars. It also begs the question of where you got the energy to accelerate so much mass in the first place. If you have that kind of energy, it's easy to fix the surface anyway. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Dec 22, 2022 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @stix agree with your last point. With that kind of command over matter & energy it's not likely the plan would fail in the first place. I'm not sure tidal effects will matter much with a closing velocity of 3 kps. Mars' roche limit is at 172% of its radius from the center, about 6,000 km. It'll close that distance in about 30 min, which doesn't seem to be enough time to be torn apart substantially. $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Dec 22, 2022 at 23:32
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The Kessler Syndrome

The way for colonization of other planets is to start by building orbital infrastructure and later focus on the surface. It is after all way easier to create habitats in orbit that have correct gravity and are sufficiently shielded from radiation (Mars has issues with weak magnetosphere). Not to mention, you can colonize those space habitats now, and not in centuries, when surface would be sufficiently terraformed.

But sadly, something went wrong. During the docking procedure with the main station a crash occurred, a reactor went critical, and the whole thing exploded (an explosion in a compressed structure is problematic). The biggest disaster outside of Earth that ever happened! And to make matters worse, debris from the space station spread through the orbit and destroyed other stations and satellites. In a matter of days all that was build in years was lost. Even evacuation of people trapped on the surface is impossible! Before any work on colonization of Mars can be done, the orbit has to be cleaned. Too bad that is a work of decades.

Phobos

Phobos, larger of the two Mars' moons is a great source of raw material needed to construct orbital infrastructure, which is vital for colonization effort. Too bad its orbit is a bit unstable (it will crash in about 50 mil years) so we need to stabilise it before we can safely mine its resources. Sadly, because of calculation error stabilisation was done incorrectly, and the moon crashed on the surface. With Phobos being "only" 22 km long, the crash will not completely ruin the mantle. But the damage will still be substantial. It will take decades before dust clouds allow sunlight to reach the surface, and even longer before tectonic activity calm down.

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  • $\begingroup$ Kessler Syndrome. Came here to write this answer. Heck, the Kessler Syndrome could happen right here at the Earth end of the supply chain. The ISS already had to maneuver this year to avoid space garbage, probably a T-72 tank turret lol. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2022 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ We wouldn't be able to crash Phobos into the surface - too much Delta V. But we could crash it into Deimos; or we could be mining Phobos and never quite realizing that sub-millimeter dust specs can create enough collisions to actually create a Kessler sphere. (They though they were safe due to the solar wind blowing dust specs away, but the person doing the calculation mistakenly took the solar wind data from Earth. Every few decades, solar flares sweep Mars orbits clean, but that's just not sufficient.) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Dec 21, 2022 at 20:22
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Gravity and health

We know that microgravity is very bad for adult health. It may be worse for children's health. Mars has almost 40% of Earth's gravity, and there is a hope that this could ameliorate most of the bad effects of microgravity. However, it's not unreasonable to expect that it would only ameliorate 40% of the bad effects. We've never experimented with life in Martian gravity, so we don't know.

So, in your story, colonists become very unhealthy in a few years, and their children have catastrophic problems with development.

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Capitalism and tragedy of the commons.

The terraforming project got funding, it got started and was going well.

Eventually the planet reached the point of marginal habitability and the funders were keen to start showing some results so they got lots of people moved in.

But as soon as there's many different people, groups and companies competing with each other they start running into the same problems we have on earth.

Whenever someone could make a cheap buck by doing things that harm the terraforming project they face a tragedy of the commons, the harm is spread around all society while the benefit goes to to the person doing the harm.

So algae fields start getting contaminated with pollution.

People steal expensive bits of terraforming equipment.

People siphon off water vital to the teraforming.

Megacorps only care about their own holdings so they spew toxic waste into the air whenever they can get away with it.

Eventually it becomes clear that people can basically make 50 cent doing damage to the terraforming process that takes 1 dollar to fix and they don't have the enforcement infrastructure to prevent this.

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    $\begingroup$ None of what has been mentioned here has anything to do with capitalism and more to do with lawlessness and corruption. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Dec 21, 2022 at 20:35
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Religion
If you have any religious community in your world, it can be in their leaders interests to prevent the colonization. One reason could be the fear of losing their share in the population (because the government or the organization in charge of the colonization doesn't want to ship religion into the new planet.) The prevention could be in the form of making superstitions, scary rumors about the new environment, making up fake scientific facts to manipulate people minds and making the vote (or even protest and strike) against the colonization, sabotaging the ongoing missions, etc. (You know how those corrupted religious leaders do these kinds of stuff.)
If you need the colonization to get started and then stopped after an amount of time, you can adjust the timing in the events I wrote above.

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    $\begingroup$ This is contrary to historical evidence: whenever nations started colonizing new places, religion happily followed to gain new believers. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 21, 2022 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ Only if they're allowed or can find a way to do so. In this scenario, the government has had enough of religious parties. They won't allow the parties to gain new followers, so the religious leaders won't support them. $\endgroup$
    – Bamdad
    Dec 21, 2022 at 8:40
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Runaway Greenhouse Effect

So what do we need to terraform Mars? We need to give it a thicker atmosphere so that it can support life. We also want to reactivate its dormant volcanic activity to get the core spinning again and create the magnetic field that will protect its inhabitants from solar radiation. So the terraforming process involves firing giant space lasers at the ground (see recent Kurzgezagt video on the subject). You do this for a couple centuries, the atmosphere starts to form, and it's looking good so far.

But then: Disaster. You overshot, and now you can't stop it. The atmosphere gets denser and denser, the planet gets hotter and hotter, and eventually, you end up not with a nice comfortable Earth-like environment, but a Venus-like hellhole. (Kurzgezagt did that too - It took considerably longer.) Now, what would have been a simple project of a few centuries becomes a boondoggle that will take millennia to repair.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's unlikely a runaway greenhouse effect is even possible on Earth, let alone Mars. The reason Venus has one is it has an atmosphere 900 times denser than Earth, receives much more insolation, and has no plate tectonics. It's unclear Mars has enough volatiles available to even get to Earth atmospheric levels, let alone those needed to trigger runaway greenhouse. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Dec 21, 2022 at 20:38

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