terra forming

Is the popular science fiction plot device whole cloth fantasy, or are there/have there been scientific discussions on if/how you might accomplish making an earthlike atomosphere on an alien world?


I haven’t read a lot of these, but Frederick Pohl’s sequel to the Merchants of Venus, entitled the Merchants War describes using huge Ranque-Hilsch tubes to reduce the temperature on Venus (Ranque-Hilsch tubes do exist, and would be an interesting way to do this, assuming you could bleed off atmosphere. And afford to do it).

Robert Heinlein describes terraforming Ganymede in Farmer in the Sky.
I assume Kim Stanley Robinson does in his “Mars” series, but I haven’t read them.
In all cases, tghough. they seem to assume that the raw materials are there in the form of ice or whatever that you can boil down and maybe perform electrolysis on. Instant “atmosphere production” a la Total Recall is fantasy.

re: terraforming (usually spelled as one word)

NASA and the Planetary Society have done some very early thinking on the topic. It is theoretically possible, but the technical obstacles and huge expense mean it will probably be many, many years before we ever try to terraform another world. And when we do, it will likely take many decades, if not centuries. Mars and Venus are the usual suspects in our own Solar System.

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a Mars terraforming trilogy (Red Mars etc.) which I’ve heard is good, but I haven’t read it.

Star Trek has had many terraforming references over the years. In one TNG episode, a diagram of a terraforming project showed it would take about 35 years from extremely nasty atmosphere to Earth-normal shirtsleeve environment, which is probably an absurdly short timetable, even that far in the future. For ST references; see:

For movie references to terraforming, see Aliens and Serenity; I’m sure there’ve been others.

Oops, I just noticed CalMeacham also refers to the Robinson series above. :smack:

I also just remembered that Ray Bradbury, in his Martian Chronicles, has a story about a latter-day Johnny Appleseed who plants lots and lots of Earth trees to make Mars more breathable. Farfetched, when you read it, but a nice story.

Yes, it’s been discussed in a serious way. I actually HAVE read the Kim Stanley Robinson series, and it’s a fairly thoughtful depiction of a realistic terraforming plan, though the technology gets more…speculative as time goes on, which isn’t all that unreasonable, I suppose.

In the very early stages, they want to raise the global temperature and start to produce an atmosphere. For starters, they make tons and tons of windmills that power simple heating coils and scatter them all over the planet. Each windmill, it turns out later in a plot surprise, also contains a sample of Earth bacteria (maybe lichen) that should be able to survive in those conditions. As they start to grow and spread, they start to produce a tiny bit of atmosphere. Much later down the line, they get into things like mining asteroids for raw materials and melting a huge underground frozen aquifer to create an ocean.

There’s plenty of science there, though naturally those writing science fiction have thought about it a lot, so even sci-fi can be quite informative.

The normal target is Mars, and includes plans ranging from diverting comets for water (impractical for the forseeable future) to darkening icecaps with carbon to increase sunlight absorption and release water (fairly plausible). All ‘reasonable’ plans have stages measured in decades, and a completion date of at least a century.

HowStuffWorks has a page that doesn’t seem too bad. I think NASA even made some maps once showing what it would look like if all the water thought to be available were to be melted in to huge oceans.

I’ve read these. Does Robinson discusses the details of terraforming, you ask?

Ohhhh yes. Man-oh-man, does he ever include technical details about the process. Lots of legal details too, when the newly independent Martians are drafting their first constitution. Why, it’s like you’re there. Manacled to the wall or something.

But back to the OP. There’s a serious scientific paper on the subject of terraforming Mars here (PDF) that might be informative.

Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments by Martin J Fogg is very accessible textbook like approach to planetary engineering.

I love my version, though it was written in the 90’s.

This might provide some information as well.

I believe Robinson shortened the process quite a bit. Even though he

(minor spoiler)

Invented the longetivity treatment so the same characters could see the transformation in thier lifetime

It still would have taken longer.


Haven’t Zubrin (spelling help?) and the Case for Mars folks done anything related to terraforming plans?

Yep. Entering Space and Mars Direct both touch on it. Basically the idea being to sublimate enough CO[sub]2[/sub] and water vapour out of the regolith to reach a new equilibrium point where you can have an environment capable of holding liquid water.

Those two books appear easier to find than the one I recommended. And cheaper! I’m damn sure it wasn’t that expensive when I picked it up originally.

The windmills would be utterly useless in terraforming (and KSR gets a lot of his science wrong in the book). It’s simply not practical (even with robotic factories) to churn out enough windmills to contribute to significant heating of the atmosphere (note that the outside of every A/C unit on Earth is hot when it’s in operation, and Al Gore isn’t blaming that for global warming). He also has characters working to lower the CO[sub]2[/sub] content of the atmosphere. Given that CO[sub]2[/sub] is a greenhouse gas, getting it out of the atmosphere would a low priority.

I was under the impression that Martian terraforming would have to have two primary goals: 1) creation of an atmosphere, and 2) the re-establishment of the planet’s electromagnetic field, not in that order. I thought that without an active core the planet hasn’t got much of an electromagnetic field, in the absence of which the surface is constantly baked in hard radiation. So even if you could make it warm and breathable, it would be a moot point because you’d be fried like an egg.

If so, then the second objective seems like the tougher one. I always assumed that a new field would have to be produced by artificial means, or the planet would have to be moved, or something equally outlandish and beyond our abilities, before having an atmosphere would even be worthwhile.

Or am I wrong? Would a simple atmosphere be sufficient to shield the surface from external radiation?

There’s some promising developments in a vaccine for radiation.

3 scattershot points:

If it ever happens I bet it will include biological alteration of humans top live in lower/higher gravity breath different atmosphere, withstand greater temperatures and radiation levels – rather than simply terrafrom into “earth too”. I would even wager it will probably be easier (and closer to our time) to make humans who live in extreme environments than it is to re-adapt an entire planet’s environment.

I think that Venus turns so very s------l----o-----w—l----y with a day-night cycle of 116.75 Earth days - it makes the idea of planting earth plants and growing crops difficult

Dear heaven Bytegeist that was well & funnily done. Exactly what my feelings were on the RedGreenBlue series (although I liked it overall)