David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System

As well as colonising the other planets in the solar system with self-contained, sealed environments to protect their future human inhabitants, it may also one day be possible to terraform them. This means transforming them from their currently hostile conditions to an Earthlike environment. At the moment, the planet considered most suitable for terraforming is Mars, because of all the planets it seems to present the least obstacles to this form of planetary engineering. I can remember reading a piece in the Sunday Express way back in the 1980s, which discussed James Lovelock’s suggestions for creating an earthlike atmosphere on the Red Planet. Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that Earth’s biosphere acts like a gigantic, self-regulating organism. This became a favourite of several of the New Age neo-pagan religions in the 1990s, where it was incorporated into worship of the Earth Mother. Lovelock believed that while nuclear weapons were a serious danger to all life on Earth, they could be used creatively on Mars to produce an environment that would support life. Mars has large amounts of carbon dioxide locked up at its polar regions in the form of dry ice. he believed that this could be melted using nuclear missiles. Specially targeted nuclear explosions would cover the polar regions with an insulating layer of soil. This would keep the heat in, which is currently radiated back into space, reflected by the white ice. The rise in temperature would cause the dry ice to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas. This would then start a greenhouse effect, which would see more carbon dioxide and other gases released into the Martian atmosphere. This would eventually create an environment, where the atmosphere was thick enough for humans to be able to move around without space suits. They would, however, still need oxygen masks and tanks to be able to breathe. Lovelock was extremely optimistic about how many weapons would be needed. He believed that you’d only need four, if I remember correctly.

Lovelock’s ideas are wrong, but other scientists and Science Fiction writers have also suggested ways of transforming the Red Planet into a place where life can thrive. Back in the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of books set on a Mars that was being colonised and terraformed by humanity, beginning with Red Mars. The veteran SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke, also produced a book in which he used to a computer programme to show what Mars may look like as it’s being terraformed. Over hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years, rivers, seas and oceans develop and green spreads over its land surface as vegetation begins growing on its previously barren surface.

David A. Hardy, the space artist, who has illustrated a number of books on space, including several with the late Patrick Moore, also described the various ways in which the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars, could be terraformed in his 1981 book, Atlas of the Solar System (Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work). He writes

Taking the concept of manned bases on other planets still further, there is the staggering possibility of ‘planetary engineering’ or terraforming – a term coined in 1942 by science fiction writer Jack Williamson. The idea is simply to make other worlds habitable by humans. An early suggestion, in 1961, by Carl Sagan was to ‘seed’ the atmosphere of Venus with blue-green algae, converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and at the same time reducing the pressure and temperature (by eliminating the greenhouse effect). The upper clouds would condense and rain would fall, forming oceans.

A more recent alternative, now that we know how hostile Venus really is, is to ferry in ice asteroids 15 km or so in diameter, put them into orbit around Venus and aim them, using rocket jets, at a specific spot on the surface. Each crashes at nearly 100 km/s, at such an angle that Venus’ rotation is increased until a 24-hour day is approached, while at the same time water is provided as the ice melts. Then the atmosphere is seeded with blue-green algae.

The same could even be done with the Moon: once given a breathable atmosphere by baking oxygen out of the rocks with giant parabolic mirrors, it would remain for thousands of years, even if not replenished. The time factor for the operation is remarkably short. Mercury would need to be shielded from the Sun by a ‘parasol’ of rocky particles put up by mass-driver, or by a man-made ring. Mars would need to be warmed up, perhaps by reflecting sunlight on to the poles with huge, thin metal-foil mirrors, increasing the energy-flow at the poles by 20 per cent. or we could spread dark material from its carbonaceous moons on them with a mass-driver. Rich not only in carbon but in oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, this is excellent raw material for fertiliser. One the atmosphere was thickened, the greenhouse effect and carefully chosen plant life should do the rest. (pp. 86-7).

The process of transforming these planets into habitable worlds would take quite a long time – decades, if not centuries, and at present it is the stuff of science fiction. But I hope that there will be a time when we can move out from Earth to create new homes for life and civilisation on these worlds.

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4 Responses to “David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System”

  1. Florence Says:

    As a retired microbiologist I agree that using microbial drivers of terraforming is fascinating. I had hoped when a child I would be able to work on a Mars programme, but it seems I am a generation or two early. It still inspires awe to think that a planet could be engineered to support our life forms.

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Florence – such projects really are awesome. Back in the 1990s the British Interplanetary Society and the Mars Society published volumes of papers on the possible colonisation of Mars. I think at least one of these discussed the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered micro-organisms. there are truly great things that can be achieved, if only humanity and its leaders have the will to try them.

      • Florence Says:

        There were some quite good children’s Sci-fi I read when young based on mars, and with the USA moon landing, and being entertained by Thunderbirds, where advanced technology was portrayed as a given, it really did seem that we were on the edge of a golden age. When Wilson made his “white hot technology” speech I really did feel so full of possibilities for the future. When I was a research scientis, visiting a fellow academic in the USA we were the first to be shown the pictures from the Alvin submarine of the hydrothermal vents deep under the sea with the amazing life forms, and the extremophile microbes there, making our own planet seem as exotic as anywhere in the solar system. The type of microbes found in these places are the stuff of terraforming. Money for peaceful research was tight but available.
        And yet progress stalled very quickly, the money that had gone into social and infrastructure development was being channelled into war instead, and looking back it now seems that the human race had that possible future snatched away by the military industrial complex. I hope that in my lifetime the people of the world unite to take back control from the destroyers. I am sure that there is life already within our own solar system, on moons and planets, even on the Moon, which has a thin atmisphere and water and may not be the dead rock we have been taught to see. I personally think the universe teams with life. The ESA has shown how relatively cheap space research can be carried out, and if for nothing else I am deeply saddened by the Brexit vote affect on the shared research projects in the EU. I do hope we find our collective way back to hope and a possibility of better futures.

      • Beastrabban Says:

        I can remember reading some of the children’s books set on Mars. I think Heinlein wrote one, about a human settlement having to move south as the Martian winter came on. I also read one set on the Red Planet by Patrick Moore. This was probably written a little later, when it was known that Mars didn’t have much of an atmosphere, and was far more like the Moon. The humans lived in enclosed bases, but it looked forward to a future where the planet was terraformed and humanity could move out on to its surface.

        Looking at some of the books published on space during the heyday of the space race and the Moon landings in the ’70s, what is immediately apparent is their optimism. They forecast humans building bases on the Moon and moving outward into the solar system in the 1980s. I was too young for Thunderbirds, but I did buy some of the Gerry Anderson comics, like TV21. And the message from shows like Dr. Who, Star Trek, Space: 1999 and UFO did seem to be that the space age was, if not now, then certainly within the next few years.

        And I can remember the excitement in the 1990s about the extremophiles living at the bottom of the ocean around the deep sea vents, and how they suggested that life may about in even the harshest environments. I don’t know if you saw it, but the Beeb in the 1990s also broadcast a documentary exploring the possible forms of alien life. And one of these was in an extraterrestrial ocean, such as that which may exist on Callisto, where the energy similarly came from volcanic activity.

        I’m rather pessimistic about life in the solar system, but you do have a point about its possible existence. There were the possible microfossils found in the Martian meteorite in Antarctica, and the Ufologist Jenny Randles mentions in one of her books the fact that some of the bacteria carried into space by the various Moon probes were found to be still viable a decade later, even after exposure to the harsh lunar environment. Stephen Baxter also wrote SF stories about the possibility of life existing in water preserved under the ice of a crater at Mercury’s poles, and on one of the freezing objects beyond the orbit of Pluto, based on scientific speculation.

        As for Harold Wilson’s speech about the ‘white heat of technology’ – Wilson was right, but this technological expertise and achievement has been thrown away. Again, back in the 1990s there was a small press magazine called The Edge, which took as its starting point Wilson’s speech, and lamented the failure of British society and technology to follow his lead.

        And you’re absolutely right about the appalling effect of Brexit on ESA and European scientific research. Grrrrr.

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