Terraforming Another Planet - Possible? When?

Let us say that ALL the world’s leaders and scientists agree that the Earth will be doomed in X years due to (insert outlandish scientific reason probably involving our Sun).

And based on that we make the following assumptions:

  1. It is agreed that Mars or another celestial body (Titan, etc) offers the human race a chance at survival

  2. All the Earth’s resources are brought to bare (money, technology, natural resources, knowledge)

  3. We remove all the political/ethic/morality/religious/scientific debates and actually agree on a “plan” (very unlikely I know)

So with the above assumptions, I would love to hear opinions on and discuss possible answers to the following:

  1. Do we currently have or would have the technology in 50 years to colonize Mars, Titan or any newly found earth like planet especially given the will and focus that unanimous agreement would bring?

  2. Colonizing seems infinitely easier than Terraforming. Can you even Terraform AFTER colonization?

  3. How many decades or centuries are humans away from having the ability to Terraform a planet? (I personally like to look at the technology available in 1917 and compare to 2017 as a belief that we may have the ability in 100 years).

  4. What types of hypothetical technology would be needed that we do not have now to Terraform a planet and create an atmosphere? Is nuking polar caps REALLY feasible? It seems it would take 1000s or more nukes to even begin to create a real atmosphere and without a magentic core, it would just get blown away by the Sun, right?

  5. Under the best case scenarios and with probably uninvented technologies, could a planet be Terraformed to create a breathable atmosphere in 50 or 100 years?

I think it will be possible within 30-50 years.

I think the actual process could be completed in under a century.

And I think it won’t actually be done for a long, long time.

The reason is that the new advances in machine learning means that in the very near future (5 years), far more intelligent factory robots will be possible. They won’t need as much (or any) training to make an arbitrary product, just the data describing the final assembly and the specifications for each component that must be fabricated. They will be able to learn on the job, becoming better at they go at handling faults, sometimes with the help of human feedback.

And so *well *within the 50 years I gave as an upper ceiling, the robots will be so advanced that you will be able to feed a factory full of these robots the assembly plans (which go to a cloud server cluster and then many many steps happen in between) for themselves.

And they will also be able to make the arbitrary components that go into mining machinery, including autonomous mining robots, and build and assemble the machines that make semiconductor chips so they can make more chips for themselves, and make the parts that go into solar panel fabrication machines, and so on and so forth.

So within 50 years, it’s full, end to end, self replicating machine autonomy. Well, near autonomy. State of the art neural network systems still have failure cases and edge cases, and probably a human would have to intervene periodically when this happens.

Anyways, once you have that, terraforming a planet becomes just a planning problem. (and an engineering problem. You have near infinite robots to do the labor itself, and they are almost free, but you do have to design the machines for them to make and adapt the robot designs to work in local conditions) You send a single seed factory to the planet you want to terraform. The seed factory copies itself exponentially until the entire planet’s surface is covered with factories. Then all the factories make the equipment to perform the terraforming. Do you need to cover Mars with machines to extract oxygen from rocks? Doable. Do you need to launch a bunch of rockets to dock with various comets and adjust their trajectories for a Mars impact? Doable. Or do you just want to give up the whole terraforming thing and cover the entire surface of Mars with a series of indoor domes for billions of people to potentially live there. Also doable, and easier than trying to go against the laws of nature. (for one thing, if you gave Mars an atmosphere, it would begin leaking and would be gone eventually. Domes don’t leak very much)

I think the cleanest solution is to actually cover Mars with factories, make the atmosphere a total vacuum by pumping it off, and then launch many billions of payloads into orbit that are the components for a growing cloud of orbital habitats. Much more efficient use of the raw materials of the Mars planet, and you could house far more people in decadent luxury in orbital habitats than you could ever fit on the planet itself.

Mars is too small, too cold, and has no magnetic field. Domes on Mars are vulnerable to meteorites. Titan is too small and too cold. So we’re looking at extra-solar planets. We lack the ability to even reach them. Hell, we’ve only just managed to detect them.

Assuming we devise a means of finding a suitable planet and of getting there in a reasonable time, then terraforming is relatively simple. First we sterilise the planet as much as possible - orbital bombardment for the win. Then we introduce simple Earth organisms - stromatolites, algae, and the like - and then build up from there. With no predators, oxygen-generators will spread rapidly. But it will take time. 100 years seems a reasonable timespan for getting a planet to the stage where a few humans could descend to the surface as a one-way trip, but I think it would be a long time before the planet was deemed suitable for mass colonisation, and mass colonisation would itself take a very long time.

I’m not so sure about self-replicating machines. It sounds fine but you need to have the primary resources available and that could be a big issue. For instance, for computer chips you need silicon but you need pure silicon wafers. And to make those wafers you need a foundry and to make that foundry etc. And that’s just one component. It sounds so simple, but you need to look at the supply chain here on Earth to see what a huge task it really is.

You fix this with more general purpose machines that build more specialized. Nature is a working example of what is ultimately possible - it can produce an entire human body starting with a single machine. (which is the size of a human cell)

My proposal does not require anything like that, I’m assuming that the actual minimum factory size is enormous, gigafactory scale or bigger. Any smaller and it isn’t functional enough to copy itself. So what you do in order to conquer Mars is first you do some industrial expansion on earth, so you can build tens of thousands or more rockets to actually launch a whole ‘gigafactory’, broken down into individual parts, and land it all on Mars.

Let us also remember that “terraforming” need not necessarily mean converting another planet to a duplicate of Earth. It could also mean merely “improving” the environment of the planet to make it less inhospitable. For example, thickening the atmosphere of Mars, even without changing its composition, would mean that people wouldn’t need pressure suits but could get by with face masks.

For that matter, there’s a height in the atmosphere of Venus where humans could already survive with nothing but respirators. Now you just need to figure out how to build a floating city.

We won’t even be able to leave the planet in any non negligible numbers without self replicating machines, people. It costs too much, and the reasons rockets cost too much is that thousands of people have to build them and inspect every component by hand. And the process is error prone enough that they blow up on a regular basis despite all the careful steps taken. Once we have self replicating machines, why go farther than Lunar orbit? There are all the materials in the body of the Moon to probably have a population of a trillion people, living in luxury in orbiting habitats.

If we can terraform planets in this century, we won’t need to worry about Climate Change anymore. We can just terraform Terra.

I just love how we just handwave “Hey, self-replicating factories that can do anything!”

And this is another point. “Omigod, Earth is ruined! Guess we move to Mars!”

Folks, setting up a self-sufficient autonomous colony on the summit of Mt Everest is going to be 100 times easier than a Mars colony.

Even with a ruined biosphere–maybe it’s all those self-replicating factories–it’s still going to be 100 times easier to live in a sealed dome on Earth than one on Mars.

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that we do not currently have the capability and even with plausible extensions of existing or projected technologies such as nuclear fusion, the challenge of altering the atmospheric composition, surface soil, climate, et cetera of another planetary-type body is vastly beyond anything we could credibly perform.

Let’s take Mars as an example, since it is the only suitable planetary body in our solar system which could plausibly support a terrestrial-like environment (e.g. it has significant gravity, it rotates in a reasonable period, has seasons, et cetera). Many space advocates seem to think of “colonizing” Mars as just slightly more difficult than, say, setting up shop in Southern Patagonia. Sure, it’s cold and arid, but we could plant black alge and grow poop potatoes and extract water from the thick brines that we know to flow occassionally, and after a lot of hard work and clever improvisation, it’ll be sufficiently Earth-like that our great-great-grandchildren will farm it. Never mind that the soil has toxic perchlorates and it would take millions of years for an ecology to turn the Martian regolith into a frothy loam of nutrient-rich shit that airable soil on Earth is, or that water that forms recurring slope lineae is so tightly bound to the chloride salts that it doesn’t evaporate from the brine even in the near-vacuum conditions of Mars surface, or even that Mars gets less than 43% of the average solar incidence of Earth.

There are, however, two fundamental problems with Mars. One is that the surface gravity, at 38% of Earths, will likely pose physiological problems for inhabitants and especially during childhood development. We have a paucity of experience with fractional gravity on long term human physiology, but what we have observed from astronauts in free fall environments for months at a time is not at all encouraging. Most space physiologists believe that for long term habitation humans need more than 0.5 g, perhaps more than 0.8 g for good long term health. The other is that Mars, lacking an active core, does not produce a magnetic field, and thus, has no magnetosphere to deflect charged solar particles. This means that whatever atmosphere is produced will be stripped away by solar wind. I suppose one could posit creating an artificial magentosphere or protective physical shield around the planet, but that woudl require a command if ridiculous energies that are vastly beyond what we can even conceive.

We cannot really estimate what technology will look like in a century, even with a theoretical underpinning of basic physics; certainly, if people in the time James Clerk Maxwell and Oliver Heaviside tried to guess what uses the newly-formulated mechanics for electromagnetism (which had been known for centuries before but largely considered useful only for parlor tricks) could be put to, they’d have only have timid and faint guesses; perhaps powering pumps to remove water from coal mines, or wireless transmission of telegraph, or whatnot, perhaps artificial light for the rich to light their parlors at night. Most almost certainly would not guess that it would radically transform civilization around the globe, benefitting all but the poorest people in ways that are too bizarre to fathom, from entertainment to medicine to automation in manufacturing and service. It may certainly be the case that we discover new revolutionary way to manipulate nuclear forces directly, unlocking entirely new technologies and sources of power that dwarf what we have today just as the internal combustion energy and dynamo dwarf manual and animal labor of the 19th Century.

But here is the thing; we tend to think in terms of living on a planet because that is where we live, and our planet is so perfectly fit for us that we assume the answer is to modify other planetary bodies to be similar. But this thinking comes from not appreciating that the world is such because we adapted to fit it, and that everything about our planet that makes it habitable is a vast interconnected biome of feedback mechanisms and balances. We still struggle to even categories the organisms on our planet and the ways they individually and in combination contribute to sustaining the environment. And planets are massively inefficient. We waste away more energy than we could possibly use while occupying only the terrestrial regions of the thin outer shell. And planets are delicate and difficult to defend; a 1 km solid bolide meteroite, or a series of supervolcano eruptions, or just a massive climate shift caused by sudden release of greenhouse gases or a gamma ray burst stripping away the ozone layer could reduce life on Earth to pre-civilization levels, or even pre-large mammals, and such events have occurred periodically in the fossil record.

On the other hand, constructing rotating habitats using space-borne materials such as water ice, silicates, hydrocarbons, et cetera, is entirely plausible. They can be powered by light from the sun, mediated by shielding and insulation to prevent thermal overheating; spun to generate acceleration simulating gravity, and protected against most celestial hazards. These could be constructed with plausible advances in propulsion, in situ space material utilization and processing, and habitation technology, and supported by external supplies without spending millenia trying to establish a biosphere across an entire planet. It would be a vast (many trillions of dollars and decades of effort) effort to develop such technology but it is at least they don’t require magic pixie dust or altering physical laws, nor command of massive energies and sensitive control of biomes across hundreds of millions of kilometers of surface area.


A good training ground for Mars terraforming would be the earth. If you can’t terraform the earth to have the characteristics you want, how will you do it on another planet? What could we do in terms of positive deliberate terraforming of the earth?
Stranger, you mention humans only inhabiting the thin outer shell. Do you figure humans could inhabit or somehow make much use of the earth below the outer shell?

I would appreciate some cites for that one. As far as I can tell have absolutely no evidence about the long effects of 0.5g, 0.8g or even the effects of Martian gravity at 0.376 g. We do, however have evidence of the deleterious effects of Earth’s gravity - plenty of older people (like myself) curse Earth’s gravity every day.

If we can’t adapt to Martian gravity then we may as well give up. But I have every confidence that by the time we are able to colonise Mars in significant numbers, many centuries from now, we will be able to mitigate whatever minor effects lower gravity may bring.

On the other hand I agree with this entirely- except that when we do start making rotating habitats, I bet that very few of them have a full earth gravity’s worth of centrifugal acceleration inside.

Whoa, there - so we are talking about travelling to other stars, discovering planets with life on them, and sterilising them?

I wonder what the ancient civilisations that rule the galaxy would think about that. “This new, upstart spacefaring species seems to think that the best response to finding alien lifeforms is orbital bombardment. We’ll soon show them the real meaning of sterile.”

Yes, though I would hope we would find a planet without complex life. The fate of the human race is at stake, remember. The survival of alien species is way down the list. Starting with no biosphere and building a facsimile of Earth’s is going to be way easier than adapting humans to an alien biosphere.

But see, we can not just agree upon this.
Earth works well for life for a few key reasons.
It sits just the right distance from the sun so it is neither over cooked by radiation, or under cooked.
That is all forms of radiation, infrared, ultraviolet, visible etc.

Earth has a self generated magnetic field to protect it from some of the radiation that even at our distance from the sun would still be too much and would be highly detrimental to most terrestrial life, especially the human kind.

Earth has just the right mass.
This is very important because mass = gravity.
And among other things Gravity determines what kind of atmosphere you are going to hold.
We need those breathable gases to be retained on the surface and in sufficient density
to support us, but we also need them not to feel like the weight of an elephant sitting on our chests.

Earth is fortunate enough to be a proper combination of various elements formed into various compounds in just the right amounts

Even the surface of the earth that we walk on, that grows us food, that runs in a perpetual lifesupport system constantly scrubbing and sinking CO2 is special and unique.
It’s the result of eons of organic life cycling and cosmic material injections and other natural processes.

Finding all of those things in some other place is simply not that simple.

Mars is just too little, ignoring everything else about it and pretending you just dumped a bazillion tons of breathable atmosphere on it, it is simply an effort in waiting to die, again.

Not enough gravity to retain the atmosphere, what does not float off into space gets blasted off.
And worse, you now have a temporarily breathable microwave oven of sorts.
The sun is both life giving and a menace from hell, Mars has no shielding against the menace part, so you get irradiated or live you life wrapped in mylar shielding or some such.

There is no natural status quo reached, it is a constant effort to replace the bleeding atmosphere and combat the suns radiation tantrums.
Think sun spots and flares etc are annoying on earth? try someplace unprotected, here we live wrapped in multiple security blankets.

Mars did become barren for a reason

Money is a non issue, easily fixed by a change in society.
(Think utopia communism with no corruption, yea i know fat chance)

And if you can even remotely make the smallest attempt at terraforming Mars, then you can simply fix what you have done to Terra easier, faster, safer, and cheaper.
And you already know Terra works, and is a self sustaining self replicating organic machine, it began its introductory run 3 to 4 billion years ago, it’s still working.

And when you say ALL earth’s resources, exactly how much do you intend to use up in this definition of “all”
Some things are simply exercises in diminishing returns.

Let’s take Alchemical Transmutation for an example.
Lead into gold? Hell if i wanna get tricky, we can do iron into gold, but lead is the easiest.
And the cost is more than the lead and gold combined are even remotely worth.
Not to mention it is kind of hazardous to your health.

Once you offworld everything you possibly can to do this thing, and this thing proves out as not self perpetuating etc, then what?

Lets say for giggles that doing this requires massive amounts of something in a form that we only find on earth.
So we space elevate it, and load it on skylord trucking and drop it on mars.

Once we are done raping the earth of it, and Mars does not pan out as self sustaining, now what?
Most things you shoot off of earth and into space do not get magically regenerated.

And i have to ask, exactly what is it we are running from that we are trying to terraform an inner planet?
The suns eventual transformation sometime 1 to 3 billion years from now?
Mars is no safe zone for that, mars is too close to the swell zone, and carrying no magnetosphere it might cook first?

And Titan?
Well aside from being out in the freezer zone and what little sun there would be is probably blocked for part of the orbit by Saturn’s fat ass, it’s gravity is only 0.14g’s
So you can float to work in the crisp −179.5 °C degree mornings.

Which poses a problem for oxygen.
It freezes at −218.79 °C and it boils at −182.96 °C that is at earth atmospheric pressure, so i would assume a lot less on titan?
So at current temp pretending that titan has earthlike pressure, you might have an oxygen pond, and if you warm things just a little, poof it boils away, and at 0.14g gravity off into space it goes right?

Except humans dont fare to well at near 200 degrees°C below zero, unless we are doing cryogenics?
So how you going to terraform that?
I am thinking it does not get enough sun to greenhouse gas it, not to mention the gases would probably lift off into space, and if you do warm it, what kind of atmosphere wants to hang out in 0.14g’s that humans can breath?

Well depending on what we are running from, Venus would be closer to red dwarfsville.
Not to mention, where to you get rid of billions of tons of battery acid?
And venus has already separated its water and puked off its hydrogen, and its oxygen into the solar winds.
Thats going to make things difficult, Oxygen this pile, Carbon that pile.
it has no self produced magnetosphere, though it supposedly has the potential parts to generate one, ive no idea how on earth you would try putting the parts into motion.

I suppose she might do it herself i suppose? once you got rid of the CO2 down blanket
and let things start cooling down from a nice average 863 degree F temp. Which i guess should in turn let her start venting off some internal heat.
Which (i think the idea is) in turn lets the crust break up some and move around, lets the core shed some heat off into the mantle, who can now bleed heat of into the crust, hopefully resulting in an inner and outer core and get some tectonics started, and PRESTO MAGNETOMO! we have a magnetosphere.

Yea, now we are talking the realm of god, manipulating the planet down to the core.
How many millions of years might that take?

Sucks to be the 1st guy setting up a CO2 scrubber, since the pressure is supposed to be the same at something like 1km ocean depth?
damned heavy CO2, at least we get oxygen out of the mix right?

But noooooooo
There goes our lovely lovely oxygen off into space, because of course we do not have our magnetic dynamo running yet.

Now i’ve no doubt one could build isolated bubbles domes etc and set them up to be self sustaining little microcosms of life, that we could do if you work out all the transportation and materials logistics, Hell on venus all that 800 degree weather might be a nearly free source of thermally produced energy, long as your dome is acid proof.
Oxygen wont be an issue, scrub a little CO2 from outside, there is tons of it.
Besides extracting hydrogen from the sulfuric acid to recombine with oxygen to get water, i’m sure you could also design something to function as a electrical storage device on mass scale.

but that is not terraforming

Until some sentient presence we dont recognise decides some insects from god knows where have invaded and begun killing it’s garden or pets, or friends or what have you, and terminates the entire human race as a destructive pest.

Ponder this.
You, having the gift of 4 billion years of hindsight, see something come to primordial earth
and decide it’s going to terraform it in liquid ammonia to build a new suburb or what ever.
Because, well, those primordial little microbes playing in the water are just way down on their list of things to give a hoot about.

You on the other hand know what will come of those one day.
Would you not terminate with extreme prejudice anything that strolled on by deciding otherwise?

Well, you do have studies on the effects of no gravity/micro gravity.
Loss of bone density, muscle mass etc.
Bone mass, growth and cell division seem to be some key things of importance.
So you could reasonably assume lesser outcomes for partial gravity.

Earth gravity has no deleterious effects, thats old age my friend.
And sadly, if i put you on mars you would have a brief period perhaps it seemed great for your arthritic joints etc, but your body would respond to the lower gravity and changes would occur, and i think you might wind up arriving back where you began so to speak?
Except for the part where returning to earth would probably just about kill you, or at least make you wish it did.

Apparently breeding is a bit iffy in low gravity too.
Not surprising though, we (life) have spent the better part of 3 billion years learning to live at 1g