NASA scientists have proposed a bold idea that might restore Mars’ atmosphere and make it habitable for future generations of human colonists.
The space agency claims that by launching a massive magnetic shield into space to protect Mars from solar winds, humans could restore the Red Planet’s atmosphere and terraform the Martian environment such that liquid water flows on the surface once again.
Mars may appear to be a cold, arid wasteland these days, but the Red Planet once possessed a thick atmosphere that could support deep oceans filled with liquid water and a warmer, potentially habitable environment.
Scientists believe Mars’ protective magnetic field collapsed billions of years ago, and solar wind – high-energy particles projected from the Sun – has been stripping the Red Planet of its atmosphere ever since.
Now, new simulations by NASA suggest there could be a way to naturally give Mars its thick atmosphere back – and it doesn’t require nuking the Red Planet into submission, as Elon Musk once proposed.
Instead, the space agency believes that a powerful enough magnetic shield thrown into orbit could replace Mars’s own lost magnetosphere, allowing the planet to organically recover its own atmosphere.
NASA’s Planetary Science Division director, Jim Green, said in new findings presented at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop last week that launching a “artificial magnetosphere” into space between Mars and the Sun could theoretically shield the Red Planet in the extended magnetotail that trails behind the protective field.
“This situation then eliminates many of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the planet’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere allowing the Martian atmosphere to grow in pressure and temperature over time,” the researchers explain in an accompanying paper.
While the team acknowledges that the concept might sound “fanciful”, they point to existing miniature magnetosphere research being conducted to protect astronauts and spacecraft from cosmic radiation, and think that the same technology on a larger scale could be used to shield Mars.“It may be feasible that we can get up to these higher field strengths that are necessary to provide that shielding,” Green said in his presentation.
“We need to be able then to also modify that direction of the magnetic field so that it always pushes the solar wind away.”
According to the team’s models, if the magnetic shield counteracted the solar wind, Mars’ atmospheric losses would stop, and the atmosphere would regain up to half of Earth’s atmospheric pressure in a matter of years.
The team believes that as the atmosphere increases, Mars’ climate would warm by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), enough to melt carbon dioxide ice on the Red Planet’s northern polar cap.If this happened, the carbon in the atmosphere would help to trap heat like it does on Earth, triggering a greenhouse effect that could melt Mars’s water ice, giving the Red Planet back its liquid water in the form of flowing rivers and oceans.
If all of this were to occur as the team anticipates – and admittedly, that’s a pretty fantastical if – it’s possible that, within the space of a couple of generations, Mars could regain some of its lost Earth-like habitability.
“This is not terraforming as you may think of it where we actually artificially change the climate, but we let nature do it, and we do that based on the physics we know today,” Green said.
The team acknowledges that the concept is largely hypothetical at this point, but it’s an amazing picture of what might be possible in the coming years. The researchers plan to continue studying the possibilities in order to obtain a more accurate estimate of how long the climate-altering consequences would take.
If the concept does prove workable, there’s no telling just how much it would alter the prospects of colonising Mars in the future.
“Much like Earth, an enhanced atmosphere would: allow larger landed mass of equipment to the surface, shield against most cosmic and solar particle radiation, extend the ability for oxygen extraction, and provide ‘open air’ green-houses to exist for plant production, just to name a few,” the researchers explain.
“If this can be achieved in a lifetime, the colonisation of Mars would not be far away.”