To Terraform Mars with Present Technology - Far into Realms of Magical Thinking - Opinion Piece
    By Robert Walker | January 18th 2014 08:07 AM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    In Trouble with Terraforming Mars, I looked at many things that could go wrong with such a project. But setting aside those issues, Mars terraforming takes us far into the realm of magical thinking - where if you can imagine something vividly, you can make it happen. 

    In this imagined future, with the ability to use giant space mirrors to warm up Mars, it is also easy to solve the energy crisis on Earth - just beam all the energy we need back to Earth from space solar power stations. With the fine control we need over planetary atmospheres, it is a trivial matter to adjust levels of CO2 from 0.04% back to 0.03% and stop global warming instantly.

    Who knows what else we can do? We surely have fusion power by then, and with such vast powers we can probably also construct habitats anywhere in the solar system, including the Oort cloud, and the atmosphere of Saturn. Would we still want to terraform Mars? Would we be grateful to pioneers who attempted to terraform the planet a few decades or centuries previously? Or would we shake our heads in dismay at the way they have messed up the planet and made things hard for us?


    Who knows, perhaps those vivid future imaginings will become a reality some time in the future. But there again, it might not happen. There might be many things about that picture that we are unable to imagine clearly and accurately right now.

    What's easy to forget is that science fiction writers don't always get things right. They imagined television long before its time, but also wrote stories with explorers using slide rules in spaceships that travel faster than light. (Full text of the book, "Islands in Space" by John Campbell). The hard science fiction writer Isaac Asimov got many things wrong including his Multivac, a vast multi-story, half a mile long supercomputer made of vacuum tubes, with only one computer in the world.

     Detail of the back of a panel of ENIAC, showing vacuum tubes. This was taken from the computer lab, which has a glass window to the back of the piece of ENIAC on display at the Moore School of Engineering and Applied Science. The image was perspective-corrected and cropped by myself. Original photo courtesy of Paul W Shaffer, released under GNU license along with 3 other images in an email to me. Copyright 2005 Paul W Shaffer, University of Pennsylvania.
    Back of one of the panels of ENIAC. In his early stories, Asimov imagined that by now we would have a huge supercomputer several stories high and a half a mile long built of vacuum tubes like these - or in another story - that it would be the size of Washington DC - with many interior corridor, with the one supercomputer serving the entire world, or an entire country. 

    All the famous hard science fiction writers have had epic fails like this, as well as, sometimes, astonishingly accurate predictions.

    There are many epic fails of science fiction like that (I mention a few more in Trouble with Terraforming Mars), as well as many astonishing moments of foresight.

    The same is true of future technology predictions. If you look at "tomorrow's world" type predictions from a few decades ago, you get the same mix of things that turned out exactly as described, or even, before they were expected, and things that remain far into the realm of future fantasy to this day.

    It is fine to use these ideas for inspiration, to stimulate the imagination and encourage "out of the box thinking". But they are far from ideal as guides for practical long term engineering decisions.

    Usually I put a question mark into the titles of these articles. But this time I'm not sure it needs a question mark. What do you think? (I do expect what I say here to be controversial).


    You might think this doesn't matter, as no-one has plans to terraform Mars right now. But the thing is, the background motivation behind our current ideas for Mars colonization is to terraform Mars eventually to make it habitable for humans. And that idea has a powerful hold on our imagination.

    NASA's current manned and unmanned space program for the next decade, and its motivation for forward thinking for the next twenty years also, is largely based around the idea that some day we will want to colonize Mars. They do not have a worked out plan to do this, but repeatedly motivate Mars missions with the idea that it is one more step on the way towards eventually colonizing Mars. The private company Mars One is entirely based on this idea and Elon Musk with his Space X Mars colonization plan is also a powerful force in favour of it.

    If this idea is an unrealistic one and an example of magical thinking, then it is taking up a huge amount of our current thinking and planning and space budgets. If you look at the hard figures, Mars is not an appealing place to go to as a place to live. It is far better, and cheaper to colonize the deserts on Earth with, for instance, seawater greenhouses.

    Sundrop farms greenhouses

    If your motivation is to find new places to live in the solar system, it would cost far less, and be more useful for the Earth also, to build your colonies on Earth. These seawater greenhouses are perhaps closest to Mars ideas, of using in situ resources to grow things in a self enclosed habitat. But of course here on Earth we have abundant sunlight in places like Australia, and seawater, and oxygen in the air, protection from cosmic radiation, and so on. For far less cost than a Martian colony, and with far more people benefited, we could build colonies living in seawater greenhouses in our deserts near the sea.

    Also if your motivation is to find a safe place for humans in event of a disaster, then no likely scenario would make Earth anything like as inhospitable as Mars. For more about this, see If Mars Is For Hardy Explorers Only, Where Is The Best Place In The Solar System For First Time Colonists?

    I think the powerful idea that Mars could be terraformed is what gives the planet its appeal, as a place people want to colonize. All agree that it is no second home at present, but there is this idea, maybe it can be transformed. And in science fiction this transformation often takes just a few centuries.

    Most of us have read science fiction stories such as the Mars trilogy, or watched movies about astronauts on Mars, and imagine, vividly, that some day we might colonize and terraform Mars. It is natural then, to want to make that happen. But things you imagine vividly are not always things that you can make happen.

    Cover for the third novel, Blue Mars, in Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy.

    Science fiction stories of the past are a mix of astonishing foresight and major epic fails.

    Imaginative future novels like this one are great for out of the box thinking and to stimulate our imagination, or just fun, but they are not good guides for engineering decisions or actual practical colonization planning. 

    Mars One have said that they have no plans to terraform Mars, and will keep to things that are known to be possible with current technology. Yet, I think their ideas would have far less appeal to the general public if we didn't have the idea in the back of our minds that somehow, some day, Mars could be made more habitable than it is now. 

    Elon Musk of SpaceX, who hopes to send thousands of colonists to Mars eventually, has made it clear he thinks in terms of terraforming Mars eventually.

    Interviewer: "Life is sustainable on Mars?"

    Elon Musk: "Well you'd need to live in a dome, initially, but over time you could terraform Mars, to make it like Earth and eventually you could walk around outside without anything, on Mars. So it is a fixer upper of a planet"


    First, let's look closely at what this is, and how it has pervaded thinking of mission planners to date. Many expensive and unnecessary projects have been started and then cancelled because of the human tendencies towards magical thinking. (This duplicates a section in my Will we build colonies that float over Venus like Cloud Nine?)

    This is a trap we can all fall into. When you are keen on an idea, then you can ignore things that are problems with it - and often don't even know that you do it. This is not just an issue for amateur theorists. There was a great recent discussion on the space show recently, where the guests raised examples of magical thinking by NASA itself.

    The Space Show Classroom with Drs. Jurist&Logan, Monday, 1-6-14

    Examples include, the way NASA continued to use the space shuttle after the Challenger disaster. As with the earlier O-ring disaster the NASA managers got used to the foam block debris, during launch, although it was not supposed to happen according to the plans - the "normalization of deviance". This is not a scientifically valid approach. Something that works fine 20 times may fail on the 21st occasion, just through probability so you can't deduce from "it's okay so far" that it will continue to work fine. It is just human nature to tend to fall into these ways of thinking, and we see from experiences like this, that scientists can fall into these traps of magical thinking, in the same way that anyone else can. Eventually this lead to the Columbia disaster.

    The space shuttle also cost many times more than the Saturn launcher per ton to orbit (though cheaper for return of mass to Earth). The ISS could have been built for a much lower cost using the Saturn launcher.

    Space shuttle
    Space shuttle launch. Though the program caught the imagination of politicians and space enthusiasts alike, and did lead to much new technology, arguably it's an example of magical thinking, as suggested in the show.

    Those involved got caught up in the vivid idea behind it. But financially, it would have made more sense to continue to use the Saturn V launcher. The ISS would have cost far less to build with Saturn V.

    Then after the Challenger disaster with the O-ring issues, the same kinds of management mistakes were repeated with the foam blocks leading to the Columbia disaster.

    This may be an example of magical thinking.

    They also cited the Constellation program - finally axed by Obama - as another example of magical thinking where the scientists involved simply hadn't done the proper sums which would have shown that it wasn't viable financially, in the view of the speakers on the space show anyway.

    So, we have to be aware of this when discussing topics such as, Venus cloud colonies - or Terraforming. There may well be hidden issues that we don't notice or don't give enough prominence to in our thinking.

    The best solution, mentioned on the show, is to surround yourself with people who are cleverer than yourself, who can correct your errors. But not to assume that they will always get things right just because they know so much, as we see from the NASA experience that clever people also are prone to magical thinking.

    In the case of terraforming, it is especially easy to get drawn into the realms of magical thinking. I have that happen to me too, so know what it is like. For instance, I find find the Venus cloud colonies ideas so cool, with such interesting physics, that I find it easy to get caught up in my enthusiasm, and downplay or ignore the issues with sulfuric acid, or the difficulties involved in returning to Earth.

    It's the same with terraforming. The ideas seem so good, and you can imagine them so vividly, and back of the envelope type calculations seem to work. It is all on such a grand scale anyway, planetary scale mirrors, seed factories covering an entire planet, timescales of centuries and millennia. Soon, you get to start thinking it really is possible, in the near future, with current technology. You imagine that future world so vividly, it is easy to forget the bottom line, the vast future costs involved, the vast timescales and the sizes of the things you imagine, and to forget how far advanced these ideas are over anything we could conceivably do right now. 

    Also it is easy to ignore issues that would need to be addressed. Many niggly but important things such as a planets magnetic field, or axial tilt, or orbital eccentricity or distance from the sun, or the unpredictability of living organisms (with current knowledge), such as the ones I go into in Trouble with Terraforming Mars.

    At the same time, there are projects that seem impossible but are actually just around the corner. It is hard to distinguish sometimes between these near future apparent impossibilities that actually get built a few years later, and magical ideas that truly are way beyond current technology or don't make any financial sense.


    One of the most detailed versions of Mars terraforming is the onen worked out by Zubrin for the Mars society. Here is how it goes, all summed up in a nice image, see How We Will Terraform Mars. It all looks great at first sight:Making Mars the New Earth

    I'll just take a look at a couple of points in their plan.

    First of all, they plan to start the process of terraforming by putting giant mirrors into orbit around Mars. These warm up the planet and also make it sunnier for photosynthesis. 

    Constructed in high orbit above Mars, the mirrors would reflect sunlight back onto Martian surface. In McKay and Zubrin's model, the mirrors would not exactly orbit Mars.  Rather, they would reside directly above Mars' night side, held in place by a balance of forces between Mars' gravity and the solar slight pressure.  The orbital mirror plan has the advantage of continually introducing extra heat into the Martian climate long after the poles have sublimated.  Even in the later stages of terraforming, Mars' distance from the sun will make the increased insolation from the orbital mirrors desirable.

    If you can send giant mirrors like this to Mars, as I said in the intro, then you already have the technology to solve our energy crisis on Earth. You can build solar energy satellites in orbit around Earth in the same way and beam the energy back to Earth.

    If Earth doesn't take on this mega project of mirrors around Mars, do a small group of a few thousand Mars colonists (assuming it goes that far) have the capability to do it?

    Robert Zubrin talks about a century of colonization on Mars to build up the industrial base needed to terraform it. After a century, if it does survive that long, maybe Mars could develop an industrial base of its own, with its own factories like the factories we have on Earth - though of course working with much more difficult conditions on Mars than on Earth.

    But the thing is, it's not capability that you need, but spare capacity after doing all the other things you need to do to stay alive. Would the Martian colonists have the spare capacity to terraform their planet? When we on Earth with all our billions, and far easier conditions for building factories and machines, do not yet have the spare capacity to make small changes in the climate of Earth, at least not easily? 

    Maybe they could, who knows, with 3D printers, and controlled von Neumann machines or seed factories and so on. But for us right now, this again is magical thinking. Should we make plans now on the assumption that, in that future a century from now, this is what they will be able to do, and will want to do? 

    The plan here would be to introduce highly UV resistant lifeforms, such as lichen, directly on the surface or to grow cyanobacteria in soil which would protect the organisms from UV, and in mats on the newly formed seas, with layers of dead cells protecting the living cells beneath. These organisms would release oxygen which would slowly build to breathable levels and would form ozone in the upper atmosphere, which would reduce the harmful 190-300 nm UV flux. These organisms would also provide nutrients to help build the Martian soil up to the point where it could support more complex plants.

    That sounds great, but how do you know that it would work out like that? There would be many other micro-organisms around from a human habitats on the surface (they plan to have humans on the surface from get go). Nature often behaves in unpredicted ways. Some unexpected microbe could out compete the cyanobacteria. They could get eaten, or all the oxygen is used up as quickly as it is produced. And the cyanobacteria itself can evolve and change its behaviour as it spreads over the planet.

    And the idea that you could generate oxygen so quickly, - would it work like that, even in ideal circumstances?

    Here is a slightly different perspective, from: Terraforming Mars: Experts Debate How, Why and Whether
    James Kasting: "as Chris (McKay) already pointed out, the oxygen is a major problem. If you think about oxygen in the Earth's present atmosphere, you have to bury organic carbon. It's not enough just to have photosynthesis, you have to bury the organic carbon that you've produced. On Earth, we bury about one-tenth of 1 percent of primary productivity in the oceans, and that gives oxygen about a 4 million-year lifetime, meaning you have to do that for 4 million years."

    "Now, if you're really optimistic, suppose you could get oceans going on Mars, and you had as much productivity as you had on the Earth. And let's say that instead of burying 0.1 percent you could figure out how to make that system bury 10 percent of the organic carbon. It would still take forty thousand years to build up oxygen. That's a daunting task which I hardly can envision us doing. "

    "So that leaves us with terraforming it for plants, and, well, we can debate whether that's worth doing or not."

    So, if it works, the timescale may be immense. Terraforming Mars for tens of thousands of years? We have only had a technological civilization for a couple of centuries, and had computers for less than a century. How can we start to think about taking on a project that will take tens of thousands of years to complete? Even one that takes the nine centuries of the Mars society plan would be far longer than any other technological megaproject, ever.

    There are many other enthusiastic plans for colonizing Mars. You can find some good pages on the subject at the Red Colony website.

    There are also many criticisms of the idea. See for instance, A New Earth - Not all scientific projects that will soon become feasible are also desirable. One example: terraforming on Mars.


    The Daisy model gives a simple example of biological planetary regulation in action. It's a planet with just black and white daisies on it, which is able to keep the same surface temperature as its sun heats up, up to a certain point, when the process breaks down.

    Actually a team of students in Valencia came up with a rather fun project to transform a planet such as Mars into a form of daisy world. Their idea is to engineer a microbe which changes colour, so it gets whiter as the planet warms up, so keeping the temperatures steady. For more about it, see Modeling Mad Yeast On Mars 

    It's a nice idea, which is useful to show in a simple way what can go wrong with biology based terraforming.

    I don't know if their method would work in an ideal world - but for purposes of illustration, let's suppose that it would. Then, what happens if some unplanned microbe takes over Mars, one which outcompetes your microbes and which doesn't have this behaviour? Either one that was already there, or one introduced by mistake, or one that evolved from the "daisy" species you introduced.

    Most plans for terraforming Mars are more complex than this, involving many cycles, but run into the same issue. You have to be sure that all the cycles will work as expected, with the same types of organism as you expected. 

    This World Is Black and White - Daisy world
    Daisy world. The daisies have an optimal temperature for growth. The black daisies absorb more heat, so are a bit warmer than their surroundings, and do well when the climate is too cold. The white daisies do better when it is too warm.

    As the sun heats up (as ours did) then more white daisies grow, and as they reflect away more of the heat, this cools down the planet so counteracting the extra heating effect. If the sun cools down, then the black daisies flourish, and as black absorbs heat, this cools down the planet.

    This is a simple model of terraforming also. Cover the planet with daisies, black and white, and it should automatically regulate itself to the desired temperature. But what happens if some weeds grow on your planet that prefer much colder or much warmer temperatures than your daisies, or perhaps transform the atmosphere so it is poisonous to them?

    For details see A PARABLE ABOUT A PLANETARY SYSTEM: Watson and Lovelock's Daisy World

    As John Rummel (who was planetary protection officer for NASA) said in the same debate

    "We need to know, before we go, whether or not, if we adopt a trajectory, are there martian organisms there? As we push Mars towards being more Earth-like, are there organisms there that will push back, that will do what we would consider to be socially unproductive things, like covering the planet with poisons? So let's think about whether or not Mars should be pushed in that direction. Once you make the decision, then I don't have a job anymore.".

    Kim Stanley Robinson himself (author of the Mars trilogy) said in the same discussion

    "The first question we need to answer is, is there life there right now alive, or not? When we answer that, and if the answer's in the negative, we can then proceed with essentially a dead rock that's very big and really interesting, and bringing life seems the obvious thing to do. A project which the industrial capacities of humanity may grow in ways that are as surprising to us as (our technology would be surprising to) the people in the 17th century."

    "If we do find life on Mars, it will be very interesting to try to discover whether it is indigenous, which is to say a second start, and truly alien to us, a second genesis. In that case, I think we'll have to go and try to kill all the bacteria that are already there, inside the boxes that we've left, and try to clean up and really study it from a distance. That will be a really remarkable discovery, perhaps the major discovery in human history."


    Everyone is agreed, I think, that we don't yet have the knowledge to be able to predict exactly what will happen if we try to terraform Mars. They are also agreed, I think that it is not guaranteed to work out.

    It does no harm at all to think about the ideas. I think we can learn much from this. from that same debate again, this time, David Grinspoon

    "We should be thinking about terraforming Mars. I don't think we should terraform Mars now, but as we think about it, we work the problem of how do we purposefully take care of a planetary climate. So I think that this exercise of considering terraforming Mars is very good for us, and is maybe a first step towards attaining the kind of wisdom that we need to someday be smart enough - not just technically, but also ethically and in terms of collective decision-making - to terraform Mars."

    Where I think it can go wrong is if we then use these ideas to guide our space programs and future exploration of Mars. When we start planning as if future terraforming of Mars is a done deal, something that is bound to happen, that's when we fall into the trap of magical thinking, I think.

    If we try to colonize and terraform Mars right now, I believe that the experiment is likely to fail. This might happen quickly, when colonists fail to establish a presence and die of accidents and other hazards on Mars, and we are unable to get emergency supplies to them in time from Earth. If that doesn't happen, it may fail more slowly, as our long term terraforming attempts run into one unanticipated issue after another.

    Here is a photograph of a re-enactment of the Viking invasion of N. America.
    Reenactment of the Viking landing at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada, 2000. The foremost longship is flying, from top to bottom, the flag of Iceland, the flag of Canada, and the flag of Newfoundland and Labrador., credit Joyce Hill
    Things seemed so promising for the first year or two of their new settlement in N. America, but soon things began to go wrong. The same is likely to happen for prospective colonists to Mars, see Mars, Planet Of Surprises, Great To Explore Not So Great To Colonize - 1. Is It As Good A Place To Live As A Desert

    We might learn a lot from a failure to colonize Mars, but we would lose the present pristine Mars. It's a one off experiment which we can never try again because we can never roll back the clock to the present day Mars.

    Future generations might decide to terraform Mars. But they might also make many other decisions. And one thing we can be pretty sure about, that the future in our imagination, however vivid our imaginings, is probably far from the actual future in reality.

    Our ideas about the future are likely to be as naive to future generations as the imaginings of the "hard science fiction" authors of the past who wrote about astronauts piloting faster than light spaceships with slide-rules, or a giant supercomputer made of vacuum tubes and spanning an area the size of Washington DC.

    Earth and NASA
    We have only one Earth. We also have only one Mars.

    Let's care for all the planets in our solar system, and explore carefully, reversibly and responsibly. There is no hurry to terraform Mars, as the process would take millennia most likely and certainly many centuries. Let's find out what is there first.


    This is an opinion piece which menas, that I feel free to express strong views on the subject, for discussion, and I have not held back from presenting my own views. Do feel the same freedom to express your own views in the comments, and make this a lively discussion.


    Trouble With Terraforming Mars

    Ten Reasons NOT To Live On Mars - Great Place To Explore

    "Ten Reasons Not To Live On Mars, Great Place To Explore" - On The Space Show

    Telerobotic Avatars On Mars With Super-Powers ("Teleporting" from orbit) - Search For Life - And Long Term Exploitation

    Would Microbes From This Astronaut Make It Impossible For Anyone To Terraform Mars - Ever?

    Can Human Explorers Keep Mars Clean, For Science?

    Is there Life in Venus Cloud Tops - Could XNA lead to Goodbye DNA - And do we need to Protect Earth (or Venus)?


    Thor Russell
    In my opinion its all about controlled von Neumann machines/replicators VNR's as you mention. They are a "moonshot" tech but also in some sense an inevitable consequence of automation. If you can make your machines/computers out of the materials available without using rare elements as much as possible and you have enough energy e.g. sunlight available to give positive energy return on investment then essentially you can change the given environment into whatever you want at almost no cost.
    We are not quite there yet with AI, but not that far off. You wouldn't need anywhere near human AI to run the replicators but they still would need better sensing and manipulation tech than we have now. 

    If you have commonish elements then your robots can make robot factories, factories to make energy sources (e.g. solar panels), robots to mine or collect the materials, and factories and other robots to make whatever else you desire from the spare capacity. I am a bit surprised that it hasn't been talked about on earth much yet already because as you say it would let us solve AGW etc almost immediately at no cost and provide say an unlimited supply of energy (solar panels, hydrocarbons from the atmosphere etc), and flat screen TV's so long as you avoided rare elements. After all the processes that run our society/factories and make the raw materials etc are done by bored humans not using anything like their available brainpower and trying to be machines anyway. In terms of "moonshots" I think it would be both easier, immensely more powerful/helpful and potentially scary than things like fusion/ITER.

    The only mention of something like this I can find is the probably abortive and seemingly a bit confused: (they shouldn't be worried about building power lines, but making solar panels practically for free, or being even more bold and including CO2 sucking machines in the desert)

    I would say that VNR's would be made on earth first, and yes a project to green the Sahara for food using available materials silicon, CO2, seawater, sun, etc would be a pretty good place to start! Anyone that is serious about asteroid mining is going to pursue something similar as it will make all the difference in terms of cost. The challenge would be to adapt each system to be able to reproduce itself with the materials available. Using little to no metal in the desert would be the goal in the Sahara, and for asteroids a different set of challenges.

    So I wouldn't worry about plans to terraform Mars, without VNR's it is not happening, you can't even do the first stage involving giant mirrors etc, and when you have VNR's that could make giant mirrors then the capabilities of the human race would be so vastly different to what they are now that everything would need rethinking. You could of course make enclosed habitats (soft terraforming I think you have called it) with the VNR's much bigger than the inhabitants would need, with perfect climate etc so I don't think people would then feel that terraforming was so important. A pretty high priority for any early settlement on Mars would be to make factories to make habitat material from existing materials. 
    Thor Russell
    Oh, that Sahara solar power plant breeding project is interesting. I suppose they plan to use thin film silicon solar power cells, not quite as efficient as the rare earth Indium using ones. And - I think not that the plants make themselves, but that they produce all the power needed to make new copies of themselves. But if they can, is kind of half way towards a clanking replicator. Which then can make other things also.  
    I'm not sure why they plan to use liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors, as High Voltage Direct Current works fine for long distance power distribution - longest distance so far, just looked up, is for the Rio Madeira HVDC system at 2,375 km. So could supply large areas of Europe and Africa that way and probably many places in the world are within 2,000 km of a suitable desert, doubt if they need liquid nitrogen for some time - unless I'm missing something, also Desertec similar project to supply solar power to Southern Europe which was eventually dropped - used HVDC.

    It's good the way the project plans to involve local scientists in Africa in the project right from get go development stages and research.

    Yes, and a project like that - once it gets 50% of the solar power of the world, a few years later has 100% and then 200% and so on, because nowhere near covering even a sizeable % of the deserts of the world at that point.

    Eventually could also make floating solar panels that float over the seas in the tropics too perhaps. If transmission can be sorted out, or else just that those plants use the power to extract trace elements from seawater or to make hydrogen fuel etc.
    Anyway, yes, that idea - once it is applied in space - could be a way to make a partial Dyson swarm - if you can have self replicating solar power satellites, with a doubling rate of say a few years, then before long you can capture a sizeable fraction of the solar power from the sun, just for the financial outlay to build one self replicating solar power satellite. 

    Then are far into magical futures and mega solar engineering.

    BTW still talking about these, for us, magical futures, another approach is synthetic life.

    For instance the problems of irreversibility of attempts to use ecopoesis on Mars - introduction of life into a habitat could be made so you can stop it at any time, and stops naturally after a particular goal or timescale is reached.

    So, you could create a synthetic life form that reproduces exactly, with some kind of error correction so it can't evolve, and with a sort of telemore thing so it can only reproduce for say 10 generations and then stops, indeed not that unlike the way human cells work - then that could be a safe lifeform because its engineered so it can't "go wild" and it stops at a certain point. For extra safety could have an emergency switch, some signal which stops it so you can stop it in its track at any time - so they stop photosynthesizing or whatever they do - and send signals to all the other cells in range (chemical say, some biochemical signal which you give which they then amplify in that way) to stop as well.

    You would have to be very sure that it does exactly what it is designed to do and can't do anything else, even at extremely low probability of say 1 in 1020 or whatever. Is well into magic land for us at present I imagine. And need very detailed modelling of its effects through experience and advanced supercomputer detailed models etc. But with those capabilities again you could transform a planet, things like that daisy world would be safe and practical, you could build cells that can fine tune any of the trace gases in an atmosphere - but can be stopped also instantly if they cause problems etc.

    So then terraforming Mars might become something even easy to do, if we wanted to do it, or Venus or whatever. Also taking apart a moon or Jupiter into its constituents and remaking the solar system as you please.

    By the time terraforming Mars becomes possible, then yes, I think we'd be well on the way to those magical powers. But hadn't realised, until you said, that self replicating solar power plants might be one way it happens rather than self replicating fusion power plants.

    With all that power we'd also have huge responsibility as well. Anyway imagining this might well be like imagining Multivac early last century. So who knows, but seems possible to me ;).

    Thor Russell
    Yes I sure think the  liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors shows that they don't "get" their own project. The point is you can make much electricity cheaply and very sustainably so you don't prioritize sending it efficiently. You make so much that you can afford to be "wasteful" with it. How long do you think until such things become reality on earth? Because of reasons like these I can't take concerns about what the sea level will be in say 200 years too seriously. I would guess that by say 2060 there would be a reasonable chance we would have replicator like systems working on earth and be well on our way to make vast amounts of food etc from the deserts. I am not in favor of climate inaction as a result because a 50% chance we will be able to quickly reduce CO2 isn't good enough at all to stake things on, however there is a reasonable chance tech like this will transform our society soonish. Your synthetic life idea is interesting, it would need to be pretty robust not to ignore its copy limit.
    The other point of course to do with this is that in a few hundred years we have no idea what the human race will look like, e.g. non-bio consciousness Singularity like issues etc. We may have different goals and values, but its little use trying to speculate on that or plan for it. I am not so sure why you are worried about terraforming and the public being sold on these ideas however as I don't think harm will come of it. Once we have the ability to do such things our capabilities would have gone up by a step change and we probably won't need to do it anymore and have other things to worry about such as what to do with such power.

    If it was up to me I would like to see a lot more serious research on VNR tech right now. There is a huge benefit both on earth and space (I think some climate plans require us sucking CO2 out the air now by 2050 or so) its better to have to deal with the power to turn the Sahara into a food supply than starving people and a world suffering from sustainability issues. 

    For space travel, the #1 priority is simply getting stuff into space cheaper. Without that we can't really make progress, just exhaust all the easy missions in coming decades with diminishing returns. Reusable rockets are probably the biggest deal in decades, likewise the space elevator if it gets going. I would focus on that, getting stuff, people and most importantly factories in orbit. Future missions would be much easier if you could assemble spacecraft in orbit without having to design massive rockets. Then try out as much automation/VNR tech on making moon bases etc. That seems to be a permanent path forward, not ever more expensive Mars missions etc. 

    Something I find a bit ironic is the more sustainable something is in terms of using readily available resources the more powerful and dangerous it becomes. I would be impossible to green the Sahara with FF energy, but solar powered replicating CO2 suckers could destroy life on earth if they went berserk more than coal ever could.
    Thor Russell
    Okay, yes I agree with you, that there is a chance of some "magical technology" that will fix global warming and climate change. One of those is simply reduction in cost of solar panels.
    As the costs come down and the panels get more robust, then it might reach the stage where all windows, and all tiles and roofing materials and all road surfaces incorporate solar power generation as standard. That by itself would give us all the power we need.

    I do also think that nuclear fusion, especially the promising looking polywell, might lead to green low cost power.

    But again agree, this is not certain. And also, there's the issue of what happens to the world in the next 50 years. Already the corals are suffering, oceans getting more acidic, hurricanes and typhoons seem to be in the increase, glaciers getting smaller, Arctic going ice free in summer, unusual fluctuations in climate. I don't know if I'd like to see what happens to our world after another 40 years if we don't act quickly to counteract climate change.

    It would recover, perhaps, but in the meantime, we would be in for a rough time.

    The reason I think it is good to know if terraforming is a far future "magical land" idea - is - first that I think it is good to be grounded in the truth of the situation whatever it is. So if terraforming Mars is not possible in a realistic timescale with present day technology, then we will make better policy decisions if we accept that from the get go.

    Politicians make plans to send humans to land on Mars as do private companies, because they think that Mars is similar to Earth and could be made like Earth by terraforming.

    If Mars is not as they think it is, then those plans are a waste of time and expense and resources. 
    If humans land on Mars as a result of this believe, and contaminate the planet with microbes, then that's going to prevent us from getting all the benefits that would flow from studying pristine Mars. Including possibly a far better understanding of life processes as a result of a clear understanding of how evolution works in its early stages - or possibly actual discovery of a different from of life.

    Then the thing is, that those efforts for Mars colonization could be directed towards something more productive.

    If it is true, as I think, that we could learn far more about Mars with a tele-operated mission using avatars, then we can get to that point more quickly if we actually work towards it as a goal, rather than work towards a human landing on Mars as a goal.

    For instance we can start with tele-operated exploration of the Moon, as a dry run for exploration of Mars and also of great interest for its own sake (especially for exploring the poles of the Moon where human presence on the surface could contaminate the ice before we have a chance to study it properly). If for instance NASA, ESA, Russia etc had that as their goal, maybe join in an international expedition to explore Mars by telerobotics, this is a near future mission that we could achieve.

    Also, by having realistic, low cost, achievable and thoroughly worked out goals, well grounded on truth, then we have a much better chance of actually achieving them.
    Thor Russell
    Hadn't heard of the Polywell, its not really possible for a novice like me to tell what chance it has of success but yes if it worked as planned it sure would help. I see what you are saying about Mars, seems your plans are more similar to mine than other peoples in terms of achievable goals with the moon etc. All the same go SpaceX! I think their rocket tech is pretty impressive. If they do achieve their cost goals then I expect there will be dozens of other people lining up to use their tech to do stuff closer to home such as your moon ideas. If launch costs drop enough then the stories people get told won't matter so much, real stories of what many independent companies and scientists are doing will swamp those of govts and the massive organizations. Costs spent on Mars by govts etc won't take profit away from asteroid miners or rich individuals would spend for a night in space or at a moon base etc. But yep I suppose Mars could be wrecked a bit in the meantime. 
    I don't know how you can stop this happening because negative "don't" messages are pretty hard to sell, especially when space is concerned. I can see that if we had a successful moon base/asteroid inhabitants where people where living then there wouldn't be such appeal to have people live on Mars it wouldn't seem so special, just another inhospitable place to live, and one that we could regret changing, but there isn't much time to set up the other colonies before people will land on the red planet. All the best anyway!
    Thor Russell
    Yes, I'm very impressed by Space-X technology of course, game changer in the space launch business.
    Okay I just hope that education can do it. E.g. when people objected to GM crops - or - as politicians became aware of the ozone layer issues, or earlier on DDT with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", and now global warming. Also things like the Antarctic treaty and then research stations in Antarctica.

    And with Mars we do have the OST and COSPAR and planetary protection. So is not a case of trying to invent the whole thing from scratch. Just a matter of raising public awareness of regulations that are already in place. 

    So, as long as the international community continues to uphold those laws, then, really, Space X can't go ahead with a mission to Mars I don't think. Not for as long as there is interesting research to be done with Mars in its biologically pristine state. After all they have said they want to keep to the guidelines. So if the guidelines turn out to not permit the mission, they will just have to wait and see what happens, seems to me, and I don't see how, if properly evaluated, they could permit the launch at current state of knowledge about Mars.

    With Mars the thing that makes it a bit tricky though, is that rather than losing something we already have, it's losing a potential vast store of understanding which we don't have yet. So may be hard to get people so excited about that yet, but one can try.

    One thing that would change opinion about Mars quickly, I think, is if life is discovered there, or interesting past life.  Especially if these are discovered using ultra sensitive biological instruments, e.g. as a few amino acids and DNA or XNA fragments in a sample, so everyone can see how the experiments would be messed up by a human presence on the surface.

    The tricky thing there though is that every indication is that the search for life on Mars is likely to be a long one, for both past and present life. There's also the thing that it is much more expensive to sterilize a mission so that it can go to the warm seasonal flows and other possible habitats - and places with rough terrain are hard to visit with our rovers controlled from Earth. So we may continue to send more missions like Curiosity which are not that likely to find either present day or past life, because of the places they visit. And also we may continue to send missions with limited life detection capabilities - but Exomars at least will be able to do sensitive searches for biosignatures and can drill 2 meters below the surface. It might detect biosignatures. If so that could change the way everyone thinks about it.

    Another thing is if you get telerobotic exploration of the Moon, so people see how well that works, and if we get less and less use of astronauts in EVAs and more use of telerobotics. After all the Chinese are doing it in a limited way from Earth itself. I think doesn't show anything like the potential we may have in the near future with maybe many rovers on the Moon controlled from Earth and from the L1 and L2 positions. Once you see that, maybe it will be easier to understand how telerobotic exploration of Mars will work, and so less incentive to go to the Mars surface right away. Then if we get telerobotic missions to Mars and we find out how well that also works.

    BTW a couple more links on the solar breeder

    New Scientist article in 2010. It makes the same point, puzzled about why they want to use liquid nitrogen, and you can read their response so is a deliberate decision, they think it is worth the extra expense and complexity to have superconducting lines with liquid nitrogen even with the low transmission losses of long range high voltage direct current.

    Sun and sand breed Sahara solar power

    And apparently their first solar plant has now become operational, Sahara Solar Breeder programme: Technological platform operational

    Oh on the polywell, I don't know much about it, and I don't think anyone really knows much except that the US Navy keep giving progress reports that research is proceeding as expected and that they have passed all the milestones they were aiming for.  That all seems promising, you'd think if they had met major flaws they would have stopped the project by now. 
    They were awarded their last 18 month extension in summer  2012.  It must have expired or be just about to expire

    Here is the pdf with details of the last contract, they say that if it works it could be produced in 4 or 5 years. And they are locked into a single contractor because the research they have done so far wouldn't be shared with a new company if the contract was awarded to another contractor.

    It is frustrating not to have more details shared about how its going. Here is a post early this year from the Polywell blog, about serious need for data from the US Navy tests, that they could save all the other researchers a lot of time if they could release it.

    But seems unlikely they will.

    Anyway that's all I know about it, about how it is going, not much.

    Oh except, did you know that before he died and before the US Navy took it on again, he tried to pitch the idea to Google? There's a video of a talk he gave at google, you can find it on youtube. But obviously they didn't take it on. If it does work, expect they will be kicking themselves that they didn't sponsor the project.
    The obvious thing one should do with Sahara desert is make cheap water.
    One could use PV panels for local domestic electrical needs, as Sahara desert is one best location to use
    solar panels to make electrical power on Earth. But main effort should be to make fresh water from sea water and can
    do this with solar ponds:
    The main problem is political.
    But Egypt imports a lot of food- very little is domestically produced, so the Sahara desert could made into
    Egypt's and other countries in the region, breadbasket region. And be expanded to be one world's largest
    food producing region in the world. To do this you need lots of cheap water.
    US had tried to work with Egypt to develop a region is below sea level. Qattara Depression:
    "Plans to use the Qattara Depression for the generation of electricity date back to 1912 from Berlin geographer Professor Penck. The subject was discussed in more detail by Dr. John Ball in 1927. In 1957 the American Central Intelligence Agency proposed to President Dwight Eisenhower that peace in the Middle East could be achieved by flooding the Qattara Depression."

    So in terms what talking about, such area has advantage of not needing to pump sea water- idea above is generate electrical power from sea water being at higher elevation. But as said, the problem is political rather than merely technological, so I think regions in Sahara desert which were not as ideal [were above sea level] could be used
    if one could access to the land use.

    That's interesting. I wonder if the Qattara Depression plan could be combined with feeding the sea water into seawater greenhouses in the depression? So that way, you get the power from the height difference, and also get fresh water just through heat, rather than needing to use the power generated to split the water. Since in the plans in the link the salt water just evaporates in the desert leaving salt behind, so why not instead use it to bring water to greenhouses in the desert.
    Just an idea, and assuming the whole thing is ecologically sound. I've posted this before, but in case you haven't seen it, here is I think the most recently constructed seawater greenhouse, in South Australia, at Sundrop Farms.

    Sundrop Farms Aljazeera English Earthrise Coverage

    There are a lot of us yearning for this to happen, so I say that regardless of the merits of any arguments about it being magical thinking, unsustainable or doomed, we will go to Mars pretty soon and then we'll see what happens.

    We might not be at a stage in history where we have the capabilities to terraform a planet, but we are at a stage in history where determined resourceful individuals can travel to Mars, whether or not they are supported by their nations, so we will go. In twenty years, latest.

    Okay the first thing is that this is an area where governments have responsibility for the actions of their citizens. You can't always act on your own as a private individual. For instance, if you were to trade in endangered animals, or in wood cut from tropical forests illegally, you would be stopped. It is rather similar here.
    Under the Outer Space Treaty, governments have responsibility for making sure that their citizens keep to the planetary protection laws. This means that they are responsible for their citizens anywhere in the world also.

    If Space X or Mars One were to launch from the sea or one of the few nations not a signatory to the treaty (such as N. Korea), it makes no difference, If Mars was to end up contaminated with Earth microbes as a result of a mission organized by US or Dutch citizens, then the US government, or the Dutch government (respectively) would be held responsible for this under the OST.
    Also under the OST other states can legitimately raise objections, if they feel that one of the signatories is not keeping to the provisions of the treaty. That's because planetary contamination impacts on all the signatories to the treaty. I'm not sure how that works, what you could actually do, but I know as a UK citizen I'd be doing what I can to stop a launch to Mars if I thought it had a severe risk of contaminating the planet.


    I'm no lawyer, but speaking as a lay person, it seems that basically we have a conflict of freedoms here. There is the freedom to colonize, and there's the freedom to enjoy Mars in its biologically pristine state and to benefit from the discoveries that would come from study of a pristine Mars. 

    If a human expedition lands on Mars at present state of knowledge of the planet then those two freedoms conflict. The OST clause is about "harmful contamination" and this has been interpreted as meaning, preventing contamination that harms the scientific experiments of other nations.
    So, in this case, if the human mission contaminates Mars in a way that is harmful to scientific experiments by other parties, the OST supports those who want to keep it free of contamination.


    The OST is the only treaty that preserves peace in space. It's the treaty that makes sure that exploration in space is done for the good of humanity rather than to further the political goals of particular states such as the US, Russia or China. For instance it prevents any nation from laying claim to Mars, or the Moon. Though the US were first to land a human on Mars, and they planted the US flag on the Moon, they have no claim of ownership on the Moon. Nor do the Chinese or anyone else.

    It also is the treaty that prohibits us from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit. No space faring State is going to want to withdraw from the treaty and they all recognise these provisions as valid, except for N. Korea. The planetary protection provisions are decided by a large group of thousands of scientists from countries around the world who meet every two years, and all the space missions are designed to meet the requirements drawn up by them.


    Mars One and Space X both recognize this and plan to comply with all the regulations for planetary protection. However as new evidence continues to confirm that Mars had early oceans and water, so prime conditions for the search for life, and also conditions where present day life could survive, including the warm seasonal flows in equatorial regions, it isn't easy to see how a human expedition can land on Mars and still keep Mars free from contamination with microbes.

    I know there are lots who want to colonize Mars. And I for one have no wish to prevent that if it could be done in a way that keeps Mars free from harmful contamination. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any way to do that with present day technology. And if you look at it closely, then Mars is not a great place to colonize if you can't terraform it quickly.


    It is cold as Antarctica. It would be covered with ice and glaciers to kilometers deep right to the equator, as a snowball world, if it wasn't also so dry. It is so dry that at the equator there is no ice in most places probably down to kilometers below the surface. At the equator then at nights it gets so cold that sometimes ice will begin to freeze out as dry ice.

    Then the air is as thin as a laboratory vacuum, meaning that you would die in seconds if your spacesuit or habitat is seriously breached, the air is thin enough so that the moisture in your lungs and in your mouth would boil at blood temperature. 

    The radiation levels are high enough so that if you lived on Mars long term, you could only spend a couple of hours a day on the surface - including time spent in rovers traveling on the surface. The rest of the time you need to be shielded by several meters of regolith. 
    That's assuming you use the NASA career limit which is based on an estimated 3% risk of cancer, and with an average life loss for those who die of cancer, i.e. of that 3%, of 15 years (approx) for a thirty year old astronaut. (see Managing Lunar and Mars Mission Radiation Risks Part I: Cancer Risks, Uncertainties and Shielding Effectiveness  the table "Example career Effective dose limits for 1-year missions for a 3% REID and estimates of average life-loss if death occurs", also in Risks of Radiation Carcinogenesis).

    Though that 3% risk may seem small, it's a risk of cancer at a young age (most deaths by cancer in the population occur at over age 70). So the reduction of life expectancy for those 3% who go on to get cancer is high, so a chance of 3 in 100 that your life expectancy is reduced by 15 years.

    Then, because a foetus is especially sensitive to effects of radiation, and pregnant women would surely be not permitted to leave a habitat at all. Also,  young babies and children would be more vulnerable than adults.

    Then, nobody knows if human beings can survive long term, for years, in Mars gravity, or if mothers can give birth on Mars. We can't test this on the Earth, can only simulate the gravity for a few seconds at a time. We can only do it only in orbit, and the tests have never been done. 

    Zero g certainly is bad for your health. You get bone loss, eye problems,  thinner blood, more blood in the upper body, increased resting heart rate, greatly increased levels of adrenaline, reduced digestion, liver and kidney function, reduced thirst leading to dehydration, increased core temperatures, can only get rid of heat by sweating, not by convection so increased sweating leading to magnesium deficiency, can't take most medicines orally, only subcutaneously because of the stomach, liver and kidney issues, the list goes on and on. 

    It's not known if humans can live long term in zero g. The record is 437 days but the Russian cosmonaut who survived that long in space might just be extremely lucky to survive. In a recent space show then a specialist in space medicine said that he thought that most people would die in zero g by then, and that after an Inspiration Mars trip at zero g the astronauts would surely be dead.

    Certainly nobody would send a pregnant astronaut into zero g. It would be unethical to do the experiment, which is likely to result in foetus abnormalities and complications. Pregnant women are forbidden from flying to the ISS.

    Now, it might be that humans can survive low g, that it is not nearly as harmful as zero g. But nobody knows. It might also be that women can give birth normally in low g but again nobody knows. If not they you would also have to live in carousel type habitats on the surface to simulate full g with artificial gravity like a space station.

    Then, you are totally dependent on technology to stay alive. You need machinery to extract oxygen to breath, from water. You need machinery to keep warm. You need machinery to extract waste gasses from the habitat, all the many things that can build up and kill an astronaut if not removed. You need to keep harmful microbes in control too as they build up easily in an enclosed habitat with humans (in the ISS this is done by keeping the air very dry and filtering it).

    Nobody has yet shown that it is possible to live long term in a closed habitat in space. The ISS is so far from a closed habitat that the astronauts can't wash their own clothes but need to have clean clothes sent up from Earth and throw away the dirty ones. It simply wasn't designed as a precursor to an interplanetary mission.

    If anything goes wrong with any of the machinery, and you can't fix it on the spot, then you have to wait two years or more, in worst case, to get a replacement from Earth. So, if your spacesuit can't be repaired, you are confined to your habitat for two years. If the heating, oxygen generating, or filtering systems fail, you die.

    In a rapidly developing emergency then you are very much on your own as it takes up to 40 minutes return to hear back from the experts on Earth.  

    I think, hopefully, that as prospective Mars colonists realise these things, that they may have second thoughts, and turn their attention to more realistic goals. It's not always a good idea to do things, and as with terraforming, then just wishing to do it strongly won't necessarily make it succeed or overcome the problems. 


    Sometimes it is good to be bold and press ahead. But sometimes, as with the Vikings when they tried to invade N. America via Canada, then everything is against you and it is best to acknowledge that.

    I wrote this up as a long article a while back called Ten Reasons NOT To Live On Mars - Great Place To Explore. Then covered it again in a series of five articles starting with Mars, Planet Of Surprises, Great To Explore Not So Great To Colonize - 1. Is It As Good A Place To Live As A Desert?

    I think I might do another article again this time summarizing it all rather more quickly much as I did just now in this post. It's not at all that I want to discourage brave adventurous people in space. 


    There are many places I'm sure which are worth colonizing. Nowhere we know of is anything like as good as Earth for humans, the harshest deserts on Earth are better than anywhere else we know of in the solar system, but if you really want somewhere outside of Earth to colonize, then there may be suitable places on the Moon (caves or lunar poles peaks of eternal light for instance), or using materials from the NEOs to build space habitats, and generally, somewhere closer to Earth seems a better place to begin. 
    It has to be done responsibility, a bit like the way developers work, that you let the archaeologists examine the site first before you begin construction. If it's done like that, I see no problems with anyone who wants to colonize these places. 
    The difference with Mars really is that the "archaeologists" - in this case the exobiologists, have an entire world to examine, not just a few square meters of builder's site. What's more, it's a world that has many different and varying terrains, including the deltas, ancient ocean margins, geysers, dry gulleys, warm seasonal flows, polar ice caps, subsurface deliquescing salts, ancient river beds, caves, with a total surface area the same as the land area of Earth... It probably has many sub surface habitats you can only examine by digging, and traces of ancient Mars likely to require digging ten meters below the surface to find pristine samples. It's going to take them some time to assess it. And I think myself that there is a high chance that, given time to find it, they will find much of biological interest there.

    Just feel, that it is good to be aware of these things, which make Mars far harsher than one would think. Also, if colonists realise quite how harsh Mars really is, and will be for at least several centuries, on the most optimistic of projections, perhaps there doesn't need to be any conflict of interest with those who want to keep Mars pristine.

    There is no need for hurry. Why not take things slowly, and find out more, and resolve the many unknowns? And give the scientists and explorers time to find out if there is perhaps something on Mars valuable enough so that everyone can see the value of keeping it biologically pristine for now?

    If we do decide to keep it biologically pristine, it doesn't mean we can't exploit Mars. When technology matures, who knows, maybe there will be resources on the surface that are worth exporting to orbit, or it might be worthwhile to grow higher plants on Mars (these can be grown in microbe free hydroponics with sterilized seeds without contaminating Mars with Earth microbes). Also our biologically sterilized robotic avatars on Mars would be free to explore wherever we want and probably do pretty much anything, again so long as it doesn't harm the scientific experiments and interests of other parties to the treaty. 
    As I found myself agreeing with every paragraph, I nonetheless was thinking, if there are no suitable places for sustained living in the solar system outside of Earth, unless through terraforming requiring a thousand years and the application of economic resources vastly exceeding combined global GDP, or in space habs for which no business case exists nor is it clear that humans are capable of living cooped up in steel clamshells all their lives, why the reluctance to accept the settlement, by "seeder ships", of an exoplanet that is already capable of supporting life? (Provided, of course, that future astronomic observatories identify one or several candidates.) I understand and take seriously all the caveats about unforeseen consequences of humanity's expansion into the galaxy. But why can't we do both, set ourselves a goal of human (possibly genetically altered) settlement of an exoplanet by the year 2114, while thoroughly investigating and discussing all the risks and ways to mitigate those risks also during the next one hundred years? I know it sounds utopian, but if our fractious world community could unite around this common goal, we might even find that wars become less likely. (I would not go as far as saying that it is thanks to the ISS that we are not at war with Russia today, but surely this joint venture has helped to build trust and understanding.)

    If we get video and environmental data of a rocky planet with liquid water and no insurmountable obstacles to human habitation from a one-way robotic expedition by the year 2054 (optimistic but not impossible), maybe excitement will build. The "hook" that could gain popular support might be the opportunity for everyone on the planet to contribute some of their genetic material to the germ cells that get put aboard the colonization ship.

    Yes could be. My big caveat is just that point, what would the long term effect be of seeding the galaxy with humans? Might it be a decision we regret, which bites back at us? 
    It's like all of Stephen Hawking's worries about aliens - but applied to our own descendants instead, where I actually find them more creditable, knowing some of the things humans have been capable of. 

    Or the machines they might make, or the new species they might engineer, maybe including intelligent species with aims that are obscure to us, or machine / biology hybrids etc.

    With ETs then you can argue that if there are any then they must have survived for at least millions of years (or would be an amazing coincidence for them to arise at the same time as us within a million years) -  apparently without harming the galaxy in any noticeable way, or they would be here already and our solar system would be trashed by them already by now.

    So just the fact that we are here suggests that they must have found some solution, or that at the least, that whatever they did didn't trash the entire galaxy for our form of life.

    But if it's our descendants, and we turn out to be the first ET in our galaxy, and you are talking about the machines and species they might unleash on the galaxy, then you don't have that same guarantee.

    And that's mainly because of concern about the almost unimaginable powers one could have with von neumann machines, or the effects on a galaxy of an exponentailly expanding intelligent ET.

    I don't feel I have the wisdom to answer that question. But maybe others will. Or maybe we will see signs of ETs in our or other galaxies and learn from their discoveries and mistakes.

    It would be safe if there was some way to just send one such expedition out, and somehow guarantee that it won't send out any more. Or indeed, to limit it, say to 20 exoplanets, that that is your lot, and we won't expand any more once we reach 20. And that they won't develop unrestricted von neumann machines or synthetic life and let that loose on the galaxy, but always only use the technology in a safe fashion. 
    You could have rules, e.g. that you can explore the galaxy as much as you like, but can't set up any new settlements - unless you move to it. I.e. if e.g. your original settlement is threatened with extinction, end of life of its star say, in a supernova, you can move to another exoplanet. 

    Maybe over millennia, gradually can increase at a rate designed to never overtax the galaxy with settlements.

    Or, something like that might become so unthinkable that no intelligent being would do it, and same . Or it might be self limiting in some way we don't see yet, or there might be some way of stopping it. Or might be that all ETs eventually reach a point of negative population growth after they expand - maybe ending with a smaller stable population (best case). After all that seems quite likely to happen on Earth as one possibility in next century or so when you do the population projections, that it ends stable or reduced population over now.

    But you'd have to be very sure that all those 20 civilizations would continue to agree to those rules for millions of years into the future for that to be a solution, or very sure about any method you implement to police it, or any self limiting processes, and hard to see that working at present.

    So, I don't know what to say. Hope someone else can sort it out :).
    I have the same concerns about Stanford Toruses if it ever gets to the point where they are easy to build and we start to build more and more of them to fill our solar system all the way to the Oort cloud - because there is no clear boundary between stars when you get to the Oort clouds, so is really same situation as expansion through the stars themselves if you start to expand through the Oort clouds (e.g. with fusion powered mini stars).

    Of course not a practical decision we have to make right now, and just hope our descendants make the right decisions when it is a decision that has to be made.
    Let's stipulate that there is no way to guarantee that your fears of a future where the berserkers first described by Fred Saberhagen scour the galaxy intent on exterminating all life won't be realized. Murphy's Law says that whatever can go wrong, will. Therefore colonization of other solar systems will eventually lead to that outcome. Would that be so bad?

    Let me explain. If we remain stuck on Earth, there is no way "we" (our descendants) will remain viable and flourishing until the Sun turns into a red giant, billions of years in the future. A planet-killer object will hit us, a gamma ray burst will fry us. Much sooner than that, a mad scientist will bio-engineer a disease that kills everyone. Another scientist invents an analog to "Ice Nine" (as in Kurt Vonnegut's novel). World government is realized and it is an inescapably oppressive dictatorship, with death the only release. Life extension brings practical immortality: no more children, no more joy (this is worse than death). Economical resource extraction ends, we are forever scouring slag heaps for the dregs of the past. The power of our technology (military and otherwise) will outstrip the capacity of Earth's environment to maintain homeostasis.

    But if we spread out into the Milky Way, the species can go on for longer. Some planetary civilizations will be happier than this one ever has been or will be. Diversity! Yes, in the end something will go disastrously wrong and we won't be able to manage the threat. The berserkers will win. But, think of all the adventure, the discovery, the experimentation, the excitement that can be had in the meantime. This galaxy is just one grain of sand in a limitless expanse. Nature says we can never travel faster than light. So we can only wreck the Milky Way or at most the Local Group of galaxies. The Universe won't mind or notice (unless it's in a state of "false vacuum" and someone figures out how to bump it down to ground state).

    I say we do it. Move on to the stars while we still can. If, that is, enough people can be convinced to want it.

    The best way to find out if humans can survive on Mars is to test it. I don't think there is any other way. And of course they would run substantial risks, but I don't think that most Mars enthusiast would be discouraged by that - I am not.

    All of your points are valid of course - but it is a little bit a case of half glass empty.

    I live in Stockholm - and frankly, Swedish "humans" would be better off living in a more hospitable environment, like in the south of Europe for instance - but we still live here.

    As for the aborted attempts to colonize Vinland, well none in the small population of Greenlanders could be bothered to go back and make a fresh try, but they did succeed in holding out for 500 years in the much harsher environment of Greenland.

    The conservationist approach much be balanced against the needs and wishes of humanity, just as practised here on Earth. We build a new underground line: first we bring out the archaeologists, then we build the tunnels.

    I think the wish of humanity and life is to spread out and make the universe our home. There is a lot of universe and not a lot of men, so there will be lots of pristine places left. But I guess it will be up the states and national space agencies to make sure that Mars is properly surveyed and documented before any major colonization can move forward.

    Like any treaty, the Outer Space Treaty reflects the ideas of the signatories at the time of agreement. Interests and ideas are subject to change and a treaty can be amended as I am sure will be the case of OST.

    Okay, and, just to say, I'm putting my own views here in spirit of friendly discussion.
    First, I think there are actually, other ways rather than just to go straight to Mars and see if the colony sinks or swims and to see if it contaminates Mars or not. Many of the questions can be settled closer to home. 


    We can test the gravity issues with artificial tethers or centrifuges to replicate Mars or lunar gravity. We can also find out if it is possible to live long term in closed habitats in Earth orbit, or on the Moon, where it is easy to get back to Earth in an emergency. We can test radiation shielding also closer to home, with missions to the L1 and L2 positions for instance, again easy to get back in an emergency.

    With the Apollo program they started with sub orbital hops, then orbit around the Earth, then docking manouevres in space, then missions that flew around the Moon and didn't land, and it's because it was done step by step like that, that they succeeded.

    The Moon is a far more interesting place to explore than we realised a few years ago, with probably ice at the poles, lunar caves again probably with ice, possibly meteorites on the surface from ancient Earth and so on. 
    So, it is worth exploring for its own sake and the obvious first step before we send humans further afield.


    Mars is as tough a destination for us now as Apollo was in the 1960s in my view. I don't see the benefit of going straight to Mars, so soon. That's including telerobotic exploration from orbit, which is the way I'd like to see Mars explored, myself. I'd love to see that happen but don't think it is safe to do it right now, not without some smaller scale tests first.

    It would be different if the ISS was designed as a first step to long interplanetary journeys and if some of those preliminary tests had already been done and if we already had a presence on the Moon or had kept up the momentum after Apollo. But for 40 years all we've done is to send astronauts up to LEO and back to Earth again, and never sent anyone any further away from the Earth than that. Not even beyond the Van Allen belts.

    I think with a Mars mission, even to orbit, you are talking about something approaching the difficulty of Apollo or the space shuttle program. That's mainly because of the many unknowns for human survival and habitats, and because our only experience for 40 years is in LEO. 

    Also because many of the unmanned missions to Mars have failed, about as many failed as succeeded, and after one spectacular successful mission to the surface (but one with many chances of failure during the descent), it is far too soon to say we have reached a new phase in exploration and that nearly all unmanned missions to Mars will now succeed, as some seem to assume.  Maybe Curiosity was lucky. Perhaps in 10 identical launches like Curiosity, half of them would fail.

    For instance I very much hope that ExoMars will succeed, but history suggests a roughly 50 / 50 chance it will fail so we shouldn't count on it yet.

    With a human mission, so much more complex and with a tiny mistake could kill the crew though the spaceship still gets to its destination - I would be surprised if the odds are as good as 50 / 50 of a mission to Mars surface reaching its destination with the crew alive, right now. 

    So - that's especially for the Mars One plan - as far as I can tell, they seem to think it is going to be an easy matter to get there, and plan simply to launch humans straight to Mars without any preliminary easier flights, such as to the Moon or a Mars flyby.

    Also unlike Space X they are not space engineering company themselves but will contract out for everything they need. I think they will get "sticker shock" when they realise how expensive it is. to get to Mars.


    The thing that's different about Mars is that there is no such thing as a "minor colonization wave" if you want to keep it biologically pristine.

    Introduce a single microbe that starts to reproduce on Mars and able to live in some prevalent habitat - for instance in deliquescing salts in the soil, or a lichen or algae able to survive on the surface using photosynthesis and the 100% night time humidity in the atmosphere -  or if there is some deep sub surface habitat with liquid water and geothermal heat - and able to survive imbedded in a grain of dust in its dormant state - and there is no way to prevent it from spreading to every habitat it can colonize throughout the surface of Mars.  

    It's then just a question of how long it takes. Carl Sagan once calculated that if you introduced a microbe able to reproduce once a month, then in the absence of any restrictions on growth you'd get a population the same as the soil of Earth throughout Mars within a decade. Of course that won't happen because the habitats on Mars couldn't support such a large population. But it suggests that contamination of Mars could be astonishingly rapid. And whether it is rapid or not, you can't reverse it.

    If the microbes cause problems for terraforming also, then again, you can't do anything about it.

    So that's the big difference between humans going to Mars and humans going to Greenland. And that's why our "archaeologists" need much more time to evaluate Mars than they need to evaluate a new underground station. And due to the value for science for Mars if it is biologically interesting, we have to be prepared for the possibility that they might say that the build can't go ahead.  If they do, then that is by far the best and most exciting outcome, because it means that they have found something of great value for humanity.

    That's how I see it anyway. 


    Yes, a treaty between two nations can be amended. But the OST is much harder to change.

    It's been agreed by so many sovereign states now. Also attempts to pass other space laws, e.g. the Moon treaty, ran into all sorts of problems and has had few signatories. It's a tough thing, to put through a treaty on space law. 

    The Moon treaty for instance, was ratified by 15 states only, and by none of the ones with capabilities to launch to orbit. 

    Yes like all laws, its a product of its time. I think myself they did a remarkably good job considering. 

    Rather than amend it, the most likely thing is to add to it. So for instance, instead of trying to amend it to make it possible for nations to own property on celestial bodies, I think surely impossible to get all the signatories to agree on that - then much more likley to add to it with some form of functipnal ownership.

    In case of Mars then the crucial thing is, is it harmful contamination. It doesn't rule out introducing life to a planet, or terraforming it, if everyone agrees that it is beneficial. The issue is that at present most parties to the treaty would consider that introducing life to Mars or any other celestial bodies is harmful, because it is harmful to the scientific interests of those involved.

    So that's what would need to be settled. Most likely by scientists in COSPAR in first instance and personally I find it hard to see how they could approve it at this stage. 

    So there is no need to amend the treaty. What you need is to establish that colonization of Mars is not harmful to other parties to the treaty. Which surely as responsible world citizens, one would want to do?


    I know both Mars One and Space X have met with them and are hopeful they can meet their provisions. But I don't see how that is going to be possible myself.

    Particularly, they'd have to assess the impact of a hard landing by a human mission on Mars. I can't see myself, how the scientists could come up with an answer that does not conclude that it runs a huge risk of contaminating Mars with Earth life. 

    Only if they can decide that the current exploration phase of Mars is over, but again, can't see how anyone would come to that conclusion at present either, or in the next decade or two.


    But anyway, why do you want to do it, given how harsh Mars is? And why Mars surface rather than Mars orbit, if you are going that far? 

    To orbit is cheaper. It's safer, you can actually get back when you are old and doddering and want to retire. It's much more interesting to explore the planet from orbit, able to explore many different places rather stuck in a single base. During the dust storms you can still see the planet below you from orbit, and can do things like explore Phobos and Deimos, not stuck in your base waiting it out.

    I can't see the attraction, not once you know how harsh the surface is. 

    If it's for fame, the first to go into orbit around Mars would also enter into the history books as well, and it would be for good reasons, the pioneers of a responsible exploration of Mars. Who wants to be the people who contaminated Mars irreversibly making it impossible for future scientists to find out exactly what happened there in the past, or delaying discoveries about Mars for decades or centuries?

    This is a very interesting discussion, and I want to thank you Robert for giving us your very informed view on this matter.

    It is apparent though, that you have not caught the Mars bug, and so, from shall we say a rational point of view, you can't see the point in landing humans on Mars or even why there should by any hurry.

    And that seems to be the difference between you and us in the "bug crowd". For us it is important and urgent.

    But tele-driving a Mars rover from orbit sounds like great fun!

    Mikael, thanks for taking this in a friendly spirit. I've been "burnt" a few times in discussions with Mars colonization advocates, so it is great to have a friendly discussion.
    Yes you are right, I haven't "caught the bug" as it were. For me the science comes first, and is what interests me most of all, in all our solar system explorations, manned or unmanned, which gives a different perspective on it all.  For instance with Apollo I thought it was a great shame that they stopped it when they did, the very first mission to send a scientist to the Moon. They should have sent Harrison Schmidt back again, or other scientists; he had all too little time on the Moon. Apparently when the Apollo program was stopped finally, they had the hardware already built for two more missions never flown, launchers, and modules, now in various museums in the US.

    Glad you like the idea of tele-driving a Mars rover from orbit though! Would also include flying machines - entomopters that fly like bumble bees which you can do on Mars because of the thing atmosphere, and various types of miniaturized flying machines and gliders, flying up and down the Valles Marineres or into the crater of Mount Olympos etc etc.

    Maybe you've seen it already, but if not here is the article I did about that with some fun ideas about ways to explore Mars via telepresence: Telerobotic Avatars On Mars With Super-Powers ("Teleporting" from orbit) - Search For Life - And Long Term Exploitation

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