Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars

Abstract

We revisit the idea of ‘terraforming’ Mars — changing its environment to be more Earth-like in a way that would allow terrestrial life (possibly including humans) to survive without the need for life-support systems — in the context of what we know about Mars today. We want to answer the question of whether it is possible to mobilize gases present on Mars today in non-atmospheric reservoirs by emplacing them into the atmosphere, and increase the pressure and temperature so that plants or humans could survive at the surface. We ask whether this can be achieved considering realistic estimates of available volatiles, without the use of new technology that is well beyond today’s capability. Recent observations have been made of the loss of Mars’s atmosphere to space by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission probe and the Mars Express spacecraft, along with analyses of the abundance of carbon-bearing minerals and the occurrence of CO2 in polar ice from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. These results suggest that there is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be emplaced into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas in these reservoirs is not accessible and thus cannot be readily mobilized. As a result, we conclude that terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.

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Fig. 1

adapted from ref. 16, Elsevier

Fig. 2: A high-resolution image from the HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), with a false-colour compositional image from the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) superimposed on it.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/Univ. of Arizona

Fig. 3

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by NASA through the MAVEN and Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) projects. Thoughtful comments from M. Marinova are appreciated.

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B.M.J. carried out the atmospheric analyses and C.S.E. carried out the surface/subsurface analyses. Both authors contributed to the volatile inventory, integration and writing.

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Correspondence to Bruce M. Jakosky.

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Jakosky, B.M., Edwards, C.S. Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars. Nat Astron 2, 634–639 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0529-6

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