Terraforming Mars by Polluting its Atmosphere

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
March 11, 2015
Filed under , ,
Terraforming Mars by Polluting its Atmosphere
Terraformed Mars
Daein Ballard via Wikipedia

Four University of Leicester physics students have co-written a paper which highlights a problematic concept when planning a human colony on Mars.
Colonising the Red Planet is exactly the kind of goal that the privately funded Mars One programme has set for itself and hopes to achieve by 2025.

It has recently announced the penultimate stage of its colonist selection programme.

So undergraduates Alex Longman, 22, Kieran Flatt, 21, Sam Turnpenney, 32, and Maria Garreffa, 22, got together to look at the possibility of terraforming Mars in preparation for its first human settlers.

As part of a course module which invites them to consider alternative and off-the-wall suggestions based on real scientific principles, the groups looked at burning copious amounts of coal on Mars to create enough carbon dioxide to alter the Martian atmosphere.

The process would increase the atmospheric density and eliminate the need for pressurised spacesuits making the Red Planet more habitable.

However, the group performed some short calculations to demonstrate that, unsurprisingly, there are some major difficulties with this proposal.

Lead author Alex said: “The paper found that terraforming Mars was unfeasible and unlikely to happen any time soon due to the large values of coal being needed to produce a greenhouse effect.

“This means that the Mars One explorers require the present need for pressure spacesuits to live on Mars due to its hostile environment.

“This reminds us of how unfriendly Mars is compared to Earth and a fact the Mars One explorers would need to be aware of before going.”

The group found that the problem is not the amount of coal itself, but the transportation logistics of such a large quantity.

They calculated that using the world’s most powerful rocket, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, it would take 2,390,000,000,000,000 trips to ship the required amount.

Alex said there are also other issues with colonisation, including being exposed to dangerous cosmic rays.

He said: “There would also be the problem of radiation from the sun and our solar system when travelling to Mars for around 300 days.

“Cosmic rays can damage the DNA of the Mars One explorers which could lead to cancer or other diseases although this can be lessened by shielding the spacecraft.

“Secondly, the Mars surface is hostile to life. It too receives large amounts of radiation due to a lack of a magnetic field as well as being extremely cold, a low pressure atmosphere and having potential problems of Martian dust.

“This could create health problems if inhaled, damage electronics through charge build up and contaminate the Mars One habitat.”

Course tutor Dr Mervyn Roy said although the concepts conceived as part of the special topics were often rather abstract, it gave students valuable experience when it came to writing academic papers.

He said: “As part of the physics special topics module students are encouraged to use simple physics to investigate problems that are a bit unusual, and need some estimation, approximation, and imagination to solve.

“When students are thinking up new problems they’re always creative and it’s great to see them take inspiration from something as exciting as the Mars One programme.”

For more information contact student Alex Longman via whal1@student.le.ac.uk

Course tutor, Dr Mervyn Roy, a lecturer in the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, can be contacted via: mr6@le.ac.uk

Please note: The papers that the students write are often based on very short calculations.

The important things for the module are not the calculations or the new results – it’s that students are thinking of new problems, trying to communicate their solutions, and judging the quality of other students’ work. They spend on average a maximum 10 hours on each paper, compared to about 300 hours for a final year research project.

Dr Roy said: “Some of their results are really interesting and it’s great to see them apply simple physics in weird and wonderful areas. This is a teaching module and should not be misconstrued as ‘real’ research or serious scientific investigation.”

Read a feature explaining the significance of the Physics Special Topics at: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/think-leicester/education/2015/zany-science-projects-help-students-learn-how-to-communicate-research-findings

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.