Monday, April 5, 2010

Love for Science Series- I, Engineering Life

I love watching shows on TV that feel like a Jules Verne script, a fantastic science fiction in today’s world but one that could well be a reality sooner than one would imagine. Today, scientists on Nat Geo were debating and proposing a way to recreate evolution all over again, but faster and this time on Mars.

The issue involved making Mars’s atmosphere and terrain inhabitable, planting seeds of evolution and whether or not we should even be doing it. I heard all the arguments and being the “safe” person that I am would hate to see mankind taking on such a mammoth of a responsibility without being a 100 percent certain of how it is going to end.

The scientific theories presented below are in no way original and are completely the ideas and deductions of years of research of scientists at various laboratories across the USA. Only the language and opinions are mine.

The first step to cultivate Mars is to increase its average temperature from 80F below zero to 25F below zero. Humans as we all know are experts at heating up a planet up to noticeable consequences. But, to warm up Mars, we need to put in ten times the effort. Massive factories and plants which release greenhouse gases more effective than CO2 can be set up on Mars. As heat is generated, the frozen water on the surface of the planet will slowly evaporate and settle in the atmosphere as water vapor, another potential greenhouse gas. One scientist proposed that simply pouring water on the planet’s surface will also release gases as Mars’s soil is nothing but pulverized frozen acid, and water will activate a reaction. Anyway, as more and more of these gases get released into the atmosphere, the atmosphere will get thicker, making the surface of Mars even hotter, and thereby releasing more gases. This cycle will continue until a balance is reached and the atmospheric pressure is also developed to a reasonable life sustainable value (as low as air pressure at a height of twice that of Mount Everest). This hastened process is expected to take atleast a 100 years.

When the water vapor builds up sufficiently, it will finally rain on Mars. (I do not know for how many hundreds of years it will rain like it did on Earth to fill all cavities and depressions to form our great oceans and some great rivers). When it stops raining, an astronaut in space might well see an Earth look-alike planet, the red planet transformed to blue. Mars will also by this time have enough gases in its atmosphere to scatter light and procure itself a blue sky. The first stage in the transformation would be complete.

But, the key ingredient to make life possible and to sustain it is Nitrogen. This may be the biggest hurdle to developing life on Mars, for until now, scientists have found absolutely no evidence of this element on the Martian surface. Although, they optimistically hope that the signals may be noised by a variety of other elements and complex molecules of nitrogen. I dreamily think that there may be other elements on Mars undiscovered on Earth which may do what nitrogen does or …maybe even better.

The floating suggestion is that we should at this stage seed the soil on Mars with microbes like cyano-bacteria which can break complex molecules and release nutrients into the soil, nitrogen being one of them. As the soil becomes gradually fertilized, they would add organisms like lichens and moss which will do a wonderful job of weathering down rocks and mountains and further fertilize the soil. The idea is to transform a mountain into a garden.

After another hundred years of preparing Mars for its tailored future, the planet would now be suitable for a tundra type of vegetation. At this stage we will be very likely importing pine trees from the Earth and planting them, for we definitely cannot sustain this kind of atmosphere on Mars without setting up a self-balancing mechanism. Remember here that the scientists only hope that nitrogen exists on Mars, they do not have any evidence of it, yet. Trees will bring in the much needed supply of oxygen, consume the carbon dioxide and maintain the atmospheric temperature. The terra-formation is complete. Then what?

At this juncture, researches draw a blank. They are not sure if Mars will take the course of evolution like Earth did and develop into a planet very alike ours, or follow a whole new line of evolution with different kinds of species. Or, will it even evolve and sustain life?

Astro-biologists romanticize the idea of letting life evolve by itself after this point and just study it from Earth for the sake of science. Other hard-core researchers of the Mars society (there really is such a society) think it would be unpardonably stupid to stop here after all this effort and time. It would definitely be time for us to pack our bags and shift base there. The timeline in discussion here is about 100,000 years from today (with today’s technology, but future scientists may find faster techniques). A few conservative scientists say that it is almost impossible to predict the evolution trajectory that Mars will follow at that time and we have no right to tamper with Mars.

A few other evolution geeks maintain that it is the nature of life to fill every available niche and it would be very unlike humans to not do so. Moreover we would have made Earth completely uninhabitable by then, and would have no choice but to move. But, we are less likely to do that to Mars as our time on Earth is a good enough lesson.

At any rate, we cannot take on this massive experiment without being sure that things will not go horribly wrong because of something we do not expect, and also because this is prohibitively expensive as of today!

Who knows, maybe life on Earth itself was engineered with asteroid collisions to warm us up and shake up the surface…


Arvind said...


This post was fabulous..

So many words... and at the end it made me believe that we gonna have another earth very soon..

Good work...
You wrote so much ..At start i was frightened to read such a long post.. but after reading it ..i felt good..

And this line was funny "Humans as we all know are experts at heating up a planet up to noticeable consequences."



Mohan said...

Good article. I like the details you have been able to pen through to the core of many of the issues which may sound very trivial for most. The more we interfere with the nature, that much adverse the reaction would be. We have successfully managed to spoil the earth about 50% because of all these scientific research and inventions... Now it is time to screw it up completely and move on to the neighborhood planets. What a pity!

Raja said...

Loved the post. Can't help thinking that the same thing may have had happened to us, and we are just experimentation by some other creatures :-p

Lakshmipriya said...

Thanks for reading and taking time to comment!