Terraforming (literally, "Earth-shaping") of a planet, moon, or other body is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography, or ecology to be similar to those of Earth in order to make it habitable by humans. The concept developed from both science fiction and actual science. The term is sometimes used more generally as a synonym for planetary engineering.
Based on experiences with Earth, the environment of a planet can be altered deliberately, but the feasibility of creating an unconstrained planetary biosphere that mimics Earth on another planet has yet to be verified. Mars is considered by many to be the most likely candidate for terraformation.
Several potential methods of altering the climate of Mars may fall within humanity's technological capabilities, but the economic resources required to do so are beyond any government's willingness to allocate. Also, the long timescales and practicality of terraforming are the subject of debate. Other unanswered questions relate to the ethics, logistics, economics, politics, and methodology of altering the environment of an extraterrestrial world.
The term terraforming was probably invented by Jack Williamson in a science fiction story ("Collision Orbit") published during 1942, in Astounding Science Fiction, but the actual concept pre-dates this work.
Carl Sagan, an astronomer and popularizer of science, proposed the planetary engineering of Venus in a 1961 article published in the journal Science titled, "The Planet Venus." Sagan imagined seeding the atmosphere of Venus with algae, which would remove carbon dioxide and reduce the greenhouse effect until surface temperatures dropped to "comfortable" levels. Three billion years ago, the Earth had a carbon dioxide atmosphere. Blue-green algae and water evaporation changed the earth's atmosphere into oxygen and nitrogen gas. Later discoveries about the conditions on Venus made this particular approach impossible since, Venus has far too much atmosphere to process and sequester. Even if atmospheric algae could thrive in the hostile and arid environment of Venus' upper atmosphere, any carbon that was fixed in organic form would be liberated as carbon dioxide again as soon as it fell into the hot lower regions.
Sagan also visualized making Mars habitable for human life in "Planetary Engineering on Mars," a 1973 article published in the journal Icarus. Three years later, NASA addressed the issue of planetary engineering officially in a study, but used the term planetary ecosynthesis instead. The study concluded that it was possible for Mars to support life and be made into a habitable planet. That same year, 1976, one researcher, Joel Levine, organized the first conference session on terraforming, which at the time was called "Planetary Modeling."
In March 1979, NASA engineer and author James Oberg organized the "First Terraforming Colloquium," a special session on terraforming held at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. Oberg popularized the terraforming concepts discussed at the colloquium to the general public in his 1981 book, New Earths. Not until 1982 was the word terraforming used in the title of a published journal article. Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote "Terraforming Mars," a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. The paper discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, and McKay's use of the word has since become the preferred term. During 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby published The Greening of Mars. Lovelock's book was one of the first to describe a novel method of warming Mars, where chlorofluorocarbons are added to the atmosphere. Motivated by Lovelock's book, biophysicist Robert Haynes worked behind the scenes to promote terraforming, and contributed the word ecopoiesis to its lexicon.
Beginning in 1985, Martyn J. Fogg began publishing several articles on terraforming. He also served as editor for a full issue on terraforming for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1991, and in 1995, published the book Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments. Fogg also maintains an active website called The Terraforming Information Pages.
Fogg used the following definitions for different aspects related to terraforming:
Fogg also devised definitions for candidate planets of varying degrees of human compatibility:
Fogg designates Mars as having been a biologically compatible planet in its youth, but not being in any of these three categories in its present state, since it could only be terraformed with relatively greater difficulty. Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin produced a plan for a Mars return mission called Mars Direct that would set up a permanent human presence on Mars and steer efforts towards eventual terraformation.
The principal reason given to pursue terraforming is the creation of an ecology to support a world suitable for habitation by humans. However, some researchers believe that space habitats will provide a more economical means for supporting space colonization. If research in nanotechnology and other advanced chemical processes continues apace, it may become feasible to terraform planets in centuries rather than millennia. On the other hand, it may become reasonable to modify humans so that they do not require an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere in a 1 g gravity field to live comfortably. That would then reduce the need to terraform worlds, or at least the degree to which other worlds' environments would need to be altered.
An absolute requirement for life is an energy source, but the notion of planetary habitability implies that many other geophysical, geochemical, and astrophysical criteria must be met before the surface of an astronomical body is able to support life. Of particular interest is the set of factors that has sustained complex, multicellular animals in addition to simpler organisms on this planet. Research and theory in this regard is a component of planetary science and the emerging discipline of astrobiology.
In its astrobiology roadmap, NASA has defined the principal habitability criteria as "extended regions of liquid water, conditions favorable for the assembly of complex organic molecules, and energy sources to sustain metabolism."
Once conditions become more suitable to life, the importation of microbial life could begin. As conditions approach that of Earth, plant life could also be brought in. This would accelerate the production of oxygen, which theoretically would make the planet eventually able to support animal and human life.
There is some scientific debate over whether it would even be possible to terraform Mars, or how stable its climate would be once terraformed. It is possible that over geological timescales—tens or hundreds of millions of years—Mars could lose its water and atmosphere again, possibly to the same processes that reduced it to its current state. Indeed, it is thought that Mars once did have a relatively Earth-like environment early in its history, with a thicker atmosphere and abundant water that was lost over the course of hundreds of millions of years.
The exact mechanism of this loss is still unclear, though several mechanisms have been proposed. The lack of a magnetosphere surrounding Mars may have allowed the solar wind to erode the atmosphere, the relatively low gravity of Mars helping to accelerate the loss of lighter gases to space. The lack of plate tectonics on Mars is another possibility, preventing the recycling of gases locked up in sediments back into the atmosphere.
The core of Mars, which is made mostly of iron, originally held up the magnetic field of Mars. However, once the core cooled down, the magnetic field weakened. The lack of magnetic field and geologic activity may both be a result of Mars' smaller size allowing its interior to cool more quickly than Earth's, though the details of such processes are still unrealized. Re-heating the core of Mars is considered an impractical solution; one only theoretically possible (but still impractical) method would be to hold some sort of giant "magnifying glass" over the planet to melt it, and possibly re-liquefy the core. However, none of these processes are likely to be significant over the typical lifespan of most animal species, or even on the timescale of human civilization, and the slow loss of atmosphere could possibly be counteracted with ongoing low-level artificial terraforming activities.
Terraforming Mars would entail two major interlaced changes: building the atmosphere and heating it. A thicker atmosphere of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide would trap incoming solar radiation. Because the raised temperature would add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the two processes would augment each other.
Terraforming Venus requires two major changes; removing most of the planet's dense 9 MPa carbon dioxide atmosphere and reducing the planet's 500 °C (770 K) surface temperature. These goals are closely interrelated, since Venus' extreme temperature is thought to be due to the greenhouse effect caused by its dense atmosphere. Sequestering the atmospheric carbon would likely solve the temperature problem as well.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is a potential candidate for terraforming. One advantage to Europa is the presence of liquid water which could be extremely helpful for the introduction of any form of life. The difficulties are numerous; Europa is in the middle of a huge radiation belt around Jupiter, and a human would die from the radiation within ten minutes on the surface. This would require the building of massive radiation deflectors, which is currently impractical. Additionally, this satellite is covered in ice and would have to be heated, and there would need to be a supply of oxygen, though this could, at sufficient energy cost, be manufactured in situ by electrolysis of the copious water available.
Other possible candidates for terraformation (possibly only partial or paraterraforming) include Titan, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Luna (the Moon), and even Mercury, Saturn's moon Enceladus and the dwarf planet Ceres. Most, however, have too little mass and gravity to hold an atmosphere indefinitely (although it is possible, but not certain, that an atmosphere could remain for tens of thousands of years or be replenished as needed). In addition, aside from the Moon and Mercury, most of these worlds are so far from the Sun that adding sufficient heat would be much more difficult than even Mars would be. Terraforming Mercury is a different type of challenge but in certain aspects, it's even easier than Venus. There are discussions about settling on Mercury's poles, which seems realistic by some. Saturn's Titan offers advantages, which other places do not—close to Terran atmospheric pressure and abundance of nitrogen and frozen water. Jupiter's Europa, Ganymede and Callisto also have an abundance of water ice.
Also known as the "worldhouse" concept, or domes in smaller versions, paraterraforming involves the construction of a habitable enclosure on a planet which eventually grows to encompass most of the planet's usable area. The enclosure would consist of a transparent roof held one or more kilometers above the surface, pressurized with a breathable atmosphere, and anchored with tension towers and cables at regular intervals. Proponents claim worldhouses can be constructed with technology known since the 1960s. The Biosphere 2 project built a dome on Earth that contained a habitable environment. The project encountered difficulties in construction and operation.
Paraterraforming has several advantages over the traditional approach to terraforming. For example, it provides an immediate payback to investors (assuming a capitalistic financing model); the worldhouse starts out small in area (a domed city for example), but those areas provide habitable space from the start. The paraterraforming approach also allows for a modular approach that can be tailored to the needs of the planet's population, growing only as fast and only in those areas where it is required. Finally, paraterraforming greatly reduces the amount of atmosphere that one would need to add to planets like Mars to provide Earth-like atmospheric pressures. By using a solid envelope in this manner, even bodies which would otherwise be unable to retain an atmosphere at all (such as asteroids) could be given a habitable environment. The environment under an artificial worldhouse roof would also likely be more amenable to artificial manipulation.
It has the disadvantage of requiring massive amounts of construction and maintenance activity. The extra cost might be off-set somewhat by automated manufacturing and repair mechanisms. A worldhouse might also be more susceptible to catastrophic failure if a major breach occurred, though this risk might be reduced by compartmentalization and other active safety precautions. Meteor strikes are a particular concern because without any external atmosphere they would reach the surface before burning up.
There is a philosophical debate within biology and ecology as to whether terraforming other worlds is an ethical endeavor. On the pro-terraforming side of the argument, there are those like Robert Zubrin, Martyn J. Fogg, Richard L. S. Taylor, and Carl Sagan, who believe that it is humanity's moral obligation to make other worlds suitable for life, as a continuation of the history of life transforming the environments around it on Earth. They also point out that Earth would eventually be destroyed if nature takes its course, so that humanity faces a very long-term choice between terraforming other worlds or allowing all terrestrial life to become extinct. Terraforming totally barren planets, it is asserted, is not morally wrong as it does not affect any other life. Some more cautious thinkers believe terraforming would be an unethical interference in nature, and that given humanity's past treatment of the Earth, other planets may be better off without human interference. Still others strike a middle ground, such as Christopher McKay, who argues that terraforming is ethically sound only once we have completely assured that an alien planet does not harbor life of its own; but that if it does, while we should not try to reshape the planet to our own use, we should engineer the planet's environment to artificially nurture the alien life and help it thrive and co-evolve, or even co-exist with humans.
The initial cost of such projects as planetary terraforming would be gargantuan, and the infrastructure of such an enterprise would have to be built from scratch. Such technology is not yet developed, let alone financially feasible at the moment. John Hickman has pointed out that almost none of the current schemes for terraforming incorporate economic strategies, and most of their models and expectations seem highly optimistic. Access to the vast resources of space may make such projects more economically feasible, though the initial investment required to enable easy access to space will likely be tremendous (see Asteroid mining, solar power satellites, In-Situ Resource Utilization, bootstrapping, space elevator).
Some advocates of space colonization have argued that the same financial investment required to terraform Mars or Venus could produce a larger area of "land" if used to build space habitats instead. They argue that a civilization that knows how to live in space can survive anywhere in the solar system, whereas terraforming Mars will only help us to live in one place. Some view terraforming as planetary chauvinism.
There are many potential political issues arising from terraforming a planet, such as who gets to own the extraterrestrial land on the new planet, with contenders being national governments, trans-national organizations like the United Nations, corporations or individual settlers themselves. Such settlements may become national disputes as countries try to make portions of other planets part of their own national territory. Rivalries between nations continue to be a primary motivation for shaping space projects.
Terraforming is a common concept in science fiction, ranging from television, movies and novels to video games. The concept of changing a planet for habitation precedes the use of the word "terraforming," with H. G. Wells describing a reverse-terraforming, where aliens in his story The War of the Worlds change Earth for their own benefit. Also, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) provides the first example in fiction in which Venus is modified, after a long and destructive war with the original inhabitants, who naturally object to the process. Recent works involving terraforming of Mars includes the novels in the Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Terraforming has also been explored on television and in feature films, most prominently and famously in the Star Trek universe. In the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan, the film's antagonist Khan steals the "Genesis device," a device developed to quickly terraform barren planets, and wields it as a weapon. A similar device exists in the animated feature film Titan A.E., which depicts the eponymous ship Titan as capable of creating a planet.
Also in the Star Trek television series, humans terraformed Mars in the twenty-second century by redirecting comets towards Mars' north and south poles. In the episode "Terra Prime" the Starship Enterprise crew uses a comet to avoid being detected by the antagonist.
In Joss Whedon's short-lived hit television series Firefly, and its feature film sequel, Serenity, giant "terraformers" (ships or factories designed to generate atmosphere and perform other functions of terraforming) were used to transform the ecosystems of dozens of planets and hundreds of moons across a huge solar system into human-livable environments.
It is shown in the movies Alien and Aliens. In the first film, the atmosphere of LV-426 is unbreathable and John Hurt's character must wear an environmental suit; 60 years later an atmospheric factory has been used to withdraw sulfur and replace it with oxygen; producing a stormy but breathable atmosphere.
In the anime, Cowboy Bebop humanity has terraformed dozens of moons and planets after a hyperspace gate accident fractured the Moon, raining debris on Earth. Asteroids have also been colonized to sustain human life. Also, the manga and anime series Aria takes place on a terraformed Mars. In Dragon Ball Z movie 4, the evil "Lord Slug" terraforms the Earth to make it suitable for his soldiers and to kill humanity. As well as the video game Armored Core 2, which takes place on a newly terraformed Mars.
In the Stargate SG-1 episode, "Scorched Earth," an alien ship xenoforms a planet recently inhabited by Enkarans with the help of humans. The movie Blade Runner alludes to the existence of "Off-World Colonies" which are advertised as having a more suitable living atmosphere than the polluted Earth: The story is based on the escape of individuals designed as labor forces for the new colonists. In the movie Total Recall, an alien device is activated to transform the atmosphere of Mars.
In the series Red Dwarf, the crew have to rescue Rimmer from a planet terraformed to match his own disturbed sub-conscious, and in the episode "Rimmerworld," Rimmer sets off two "Eco-Accelerator Rockets" which after six days and nights transforms the planet into a "lush and verdant" world.
In the movie Red Planet humanity has partially terraformed Mars by putting algae on the planet's surface. As a result, the crew that crash lands on Mars can breathe. Also, in the Halo series there exist multiple colony planets that were made suitable for human habitation through terraforming.
On the TV series Futurama (set 1000 years in the future), in the episode "Mars University," it is discovered that Mars in the year 3000 is habitable, and there is a university there. It is discussed that when Mars University was established, they planted "traditional college foliage" including trees and hemp and that soon after, the whole planet was terraformed. There are also native Martians, who are revealed in the episode "Where the Buggalo Roam." The Martians however, sold their land to a Chinese man named Sir Reginold Wong for a single bead (an enormous diamond)—a play on the sale of the isle of Manhattan.
On the 2008 series of Doctor Who, in the sixth episode, "The Doctor's Daughter," the Doctor and his companions stumble across the "Source," a terraforming device in the shape of a globe with metallic rings built around it, which is the reason for the generation-long war between the human and Hath colonizations on the planet Messaline. The Doctor shatters this globe releasing the terraforming chemicals and thus beginning the terraforming process of the planet and "declaring the war to be over." In the end of this particular episode, prior to Jenny's reanimation, she exhales a cloud of golden-green mist resembling the terraforming gas contained within the Source from earlier.
David Gerrold's currently incomplete novel series The War Against The Chtorr takes a twist with the terraforming concept and has the Earth being invaded by an unseen alien species which is Chtoraforming the Earth to match their own world. The species from Chtorr are estimated to be a half a billion years older than those on Earth, and thus evolved to a higher level of competition and trickery. The Earth's species are steadily losing the battle as they are unable to compete. Humans are steadily losing the battle, as well, as the different species interfere with and overpower their best technologies which they are not designed to work against.
Terraforming played a role in the simulation computer game Sim Earth designed by Will Wright and published in 1990. Similarly, in the final phase of Wright's creature simulation computer game Spore contains a vast amount of terraforming, including the placement of animals, plants, and terrain features. This is done both through machinery and energy rays that one's ship eventually possesses.
In Star Wars, terraforming exists. The Yuuzhan Vong from Star Wars novels often "Vongformed" planets to jungles to get rid of technology. There are also other instances of terraforming in the Star Wars universe.
The planet on which the most recent Turok game occurs is in the process of terraforming, which causes an increase in evolutionary activity, which creates dinosaurs.
All links retrieved January 23, 2020.
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