Terraforming Mars

(Image copyright NASA)

On February 28 we were delighted to host Dr Chris McKay from the NASA Ames Research Center.

Dr McKay, who does research on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life, gave a talk on the physics and ethics of terraforming Mars. He’s also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human exploration. He has been involved with polar and desert research, traveling to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the Atacama Desert, the Arctic, and the Namib Desert to conduct research in these Mars-like environments.

Dr McKay described a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much energy it would take to convert Mars into a planet warm enough for plant life to grow and eventually have an atmosphere where humans could breathe. He discussed the idea of using nuclear weapons to warm Mars, how perfluorocarbon (PFC) gases could create the right greenhouse gas effect, and what time scale this would take: centuries (for plant life) or hundreds of thousands of years (for habitable human conditions)?

Dr McKay also discussed the ethics of terraforming: Should we leave an isolated planet as it is? How should we react if we encounter any kind of life form, even microbial, on Mars? What could a Second Genesis discovery, of independent life, tell us about biochemistry on Earth? His take is that, if possible, we should consider terraforming Mars, but be prepared for ethical questions that haven’t been considered yet.

Thanks to Dr McKay for a great talk and a lot of great stories about doing research in the Arctic and Antarctic!