Could Superman terraform Mars?

Not for sale excerpt from: Stephen Petranek Our life on Mars

Transcript

1 not for sale excerpt from: Stephen Petranek Our Life on Mars All rights reserved. The use of text and images, including extracts, is illegal and punishable by law without the publisher's written consent. This applies in particular to the reproduction, translation or use in electronic systems. S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main

2 Contents Introduction: The Dream 9 1 The Mars Project 17 2 The Great Private Race Into Space 27 3 Rockets Are Complicated 34 4 Big Questions 41 5 The Economy of Mars 46 6 Life on Mars 57 7 Shaping Mars in the Image of Earth 77 8 The Next Gold Rush 95 9 At The Edge Of The Universe 101 Acknowledgments 104 Photo Credits 105

3 Introduction The Dream A Prediction: In 2027, two slim spaceships, named Raptor 1 and Raptor 2, will finally have made it to Mars and, after a grueling 243-day journey, will enter orbit. An estimated 50 percent of all people on earth will watch Bird of Prey 1 land on the surface of Mars; some are watching the event outdoors in front of giant LCD screens. Just as the orbits of Earth and Mars are relative to one another at this moment, the signals from Mars need about 20 minutes to reach us. So people on earth are trapped in a strange space and time loop. As they watch the spaceship land on the Martian floor, the four astronauts up there could be dead by now if something should go wrong. For almost ten years everyone has been looking forward to this moment: The spaceship is approaching the ground inch by inch, red dust is thrown up by its brake rockets. While the spectators wait eagerly on earth, the TV presenter calls them a memorable press conference on September 9

4 memory that took place a few years ago an event that shocked the world and shamed NASA, which would be able to test its Martian spacecraft with personnel on board at the earliest in two years. That day, the company behind this private Mars mission revealed that it would soon be building a series of giant rockets to fly people to Mars and that the first manned flight to the Red Planet was expected in the next ten years. While Raptor 1 falls to the ground in a huge crater near the Martian equator, the astronauts are already preparing for the next steps. Time is valuable. If the first landing goes without incident, then the landing of Raptor 2 with other researchers on board should take place in the course of the next few hours. At the top of the astronauts to-do list is the establishment of a base camp habitat; a large part of the heavy cargo of the spacecraft is used for this. You also need to inflate "building" dome-shaped tents made from exotic materials in which normal atmospheric pressure conditions prevail. These tents will increase their living space and serve as greenhouses for growing food. Earth and Mars share some ecological features. The Martian landscape is very reminiscent of certain areas on earth, the arid valleys of Antarctica or the high deserts of the Hawaiian volcanoes. Many other factors will prove to be extremely difficult. A day on Mars is only 39 minutes and 25 seconds longer than an Earth day, but a Martian year is much longer than 10

5 a year on earth, namely 687 days, which also doubles the length of the seasons. Mars' orbit is oval, i. That is, the seasonal differences between summer and winter are more extreme than on Earth; Summers are warmer and winters colder in the southern hemisphere. These settlers will want to set up two bases on Mars if possible: one in the southern hemisphere for the summer and one north of the equator for the winter. But now the first humans to ever set foot on Mars have to do their most important task within the next 24 hours: they have to find water. Then it will become clear whether the NASA lander and orbiters correctly predicted that there is enough water in the soil of the Martian surface called regolith to meet the crew's fluid requirements on the one hand and to produce the oxygen necessary for breathing on the other. The astronauts deliberately landed in a crater that, according to a NASA spacecraft, is covered with a smooth layer of pure water ice. When they have to realize that this layer is not ice after all, the search for a place where the regolith has a high ice content begins. If this type of ice cannot be found in the immediate vicinity, the astronauts would have to use a radar device to probe whether there is underground water in the deeper layers of the earth that could be carried to the surface. Long before the next spaceships arrive (two years from now on), these astronauts will have to build more permanent structures, perhaps made of regolith back-11

6 stones. Although it is sunny and relatively warm today, around ten degrees Celsius, temperatures will drop as sharply as dark as they would on a particularly icy night at the South Pole. At least in summer, the astronauts who landed near the equator as planned can take advantage of the milder daytime temperatures of up to 21 degrees Celsius. At night, however, the readings drop to 75 degrees Celsius. The buildings will have to protect the astronauts from this cold and from the sun's rays, which pass through the thin Martian atmosphere almost unhindered. If everything goes wrong, if they cannot find a good water supply, if the solar radiation has worse effects than expected or if one of the ships is badly damaged on landing, they will find themselves somewhere safe and wait for an acceptable window of time to begin their long journey back to earth. Otherwise they will stay. These explorers, who are four hundred million kilometers from their home on a seemingly lifeless planet, are just like the pioneers before them like the great explorers of yesteryear who climbed the mountains and traveled the world's oceans to create new life. And despite all the similarities that these space pioneers have in common with the explorers of bygone times, they are more important in every respect than all the explorers before them. Because their presence on Mars is the greatest achievement of human intelligence. Anyone who witnessed Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969 can testify that the earth stood still for a moment. The incredulous astonishment at 12

This achievement was so overwhelming that some still believe today that a Hollywood film has been put in front of him. When the astronauts walked on the moon, people said to themselves, "If we can go to the moon, we can do anything." What they meant by that was that we could do anything on earth or near earth now. But the expedition to Mars will mean something completely different: that once we get to Mars, we can go anywhere. This event will gradually make playful science fiction films like Star Wars or Spaceship Enterprise look completely realistic. It will seem plausible to explore the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. In a good as well as a bad sense, the conquest of Mars will trigger a knighthood of fortune on the scale of the Californian gold rush. And above all else, it will expand our horizons so radically and give our imagination the wings it needs that we will leave our earth far behind us. When the first humans set foot on Mars, this moment will be the technically, philosophically, historically and scientifically most significant moment of all time, because from now on we are no longer a species that only exists on a single planet. These explorers are at the beginning of an extremely ambitious project, because it is not only about visiting and colonizing Mars, it is about reshaping the entire planet along the lines of the earth or "terraforming" its thin carbon dioxide atmosphere with so much oxygen to enrich the fact that people can breathe in it, its temperatures from an average of 63 degrees Celsius to a slightly more bearable 13

8 to raise the mean of 7 degrees Celsius, to refill its dry river beds and empty lakes with water and to establish vegetation that can thrive with food rich in CO 2 in the temperate zones of the planet. These astronauts will initiate a process that may not be complete in a thousand years, but that will create a second home for humans, an outpost on the edge of the universe. Like many outposts of the past, this one will also compete with the home planet in terms of its resources, its standard of living and its attractiveness. These trailblazers have embarked on a journey, the consequences of which will extend far into our future. Their most important mission is to make us a space travel society that maintains a system of rocket bases in space. This system should enable us to easily lift off from a planet with low gravitational pull in order to penetrate into the outer areas of our solar system from there. When these missiles arrive on Mars in the near future, their landing will be far more than a research milestone - it will be nothing less than an insurance policy for all of humanity. Because the survival of the human race on earth is seriously threatened today: if we fail to save our home planet from a climate catastrophe or a nuclear war. A collision with a single asteroid could wipe out much of life on Earth, and at some point our own sun will expand

9 and destroy the earth. But long before that happens, we have to become a space-traveling species that is not only able to exist on another planet, but ultimately in other solar systems as well. The first humans to emigrate to Mars are the great hope for the survival of our species. Their tiny base will become a settlement and the bearers of hope may become a new, rapidly multiplying species. The company that built the missile that our hopefuls traveled so far with is building hundreds more missiles with the aim of creating a viable population of people over the next few decades. Even if the part of humanity remaining on earth were to be eradicated, this population can preserve our collective knowledge and ability. In truth, it has been possible to fly to Mars for at least 30 years. Around a decade after the first humans landed on our moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, we could also have transported humans to the Red Planet. We have had practically all of the technology required for this for a long time. So far, we have simply not made up our minds to take our chance. It is worthwhile to understand the background to this mistake, how a single decision by a US president stunted space travel for decades, how for two generations we failed to inspire young people on earth to love the fortunes of humanity, almost everything that can be imagined. also put into action. We were 15 almost 50 years ago

10 actually able to conquer the solar system and also leave its limits behind us. Now it is the private rocket industry that is paving the way for us to the stars. Maybe there is a discovery gene in our DNA. About years ago homo sapiens began to seek their fortune outside of Africa; in doing so he broke to new shores until he had finally populated the entire globe. Perhaps this spirit of discovery is beneficial for human survival. However, this characteristic has also led to the colonization of already inhabited regions, the destruction of civilizations and the depletion of natural resources. The colonization of Mars will go much faster than most people can dream, and it will happen unplanned. Much of this book is devoted to the amazing fact that we are able to build buildings on Mars. But this book is also a wake-up call. Because although undreamt-of possibilities open up, you can fail at every turn. We need to give serious thought and do it now. 16