The Proposition of a New EarthEdit
In the original TMP, the Elysium phase of development was concerned with the terraforming and colonization of the planet Mars. In TMP2 we focus this phase of development predominately on the terraforming activity and its implications. Marshal Savage envisioned Mars as the key test-bed for the technology of terraforming that would ultimately be applied in other solar systems. And he devised a remarkably simple -if ambitious- scheme for this; ballistic geoengineering. Put simply, he proposed the steering of whole small comets, already having orbits intersecting that of the planet, to impact on Mars -it’s polar regions in particular- to provide it with the water vapor to allow for warming, evaporation of the polar caps and permafrost, and densification of the Martian atmosphere. This denser, warmer, atmosphere would then allow colonization by plant life which would increase, over some time, oxygen levels to sustain animal life.
But there are some complications with this idea. Mars lacks a strong magnetosphere like Earth’s which shields our upper-atmosphere from interaction with the solar winds which would otherwise thin and bleed our atmosphere of hydrogen, and thus water vapor. It is believed that the Martian ‘planetary dynamo’ that once supported a stronger magnetosphere and thus a denser atmosphere stopped with solidification of the planetary core at some point in the ancient past, resulting in the eventual stripping away of water vapor, the freeze-drying of the surface, and an eventual thinning of the atmosphere to a tiny fraction of what it may have been in the past. So while we might thaw out and restore the Martian atmosphere by such means as ballistic geoengineering, without a means of also restoring the Martian magnetosphere -a remote prospect given the scale of the task- no new atmosphere would be sustainable. Of course, this atmospheric thinning process is a very protracted one -perhaps taking thousands of years- but it presents Mars settlers with the challenge of forever seeking new geoengineering methods to maintain its atmosphere.
But a more important issue may be logistical. The original TMP assumed a very specific order of development where Mars settlement was preceded by comprehensive lunar colonization. In TMP2 we recognize that, while the Moon offers a good prospect for settlement prior to Mars based on the advantage of lower telecommunications latency for telerobotic pre-settlement activity, the application of that same pre-settlement approach -once demonstrated- may move on to Mars very quickly, possibly before concerted human settlement of the Moon has even begun. This is why Mars settlement is considered concurrent to lunar settlement in the TMP2 Avalon phase. Mars certainly represents a greater challenge to settlement based on simple distance. But by the end of the 20th century Mars had grown in cultural prominence as a likely destination in space, for a time superseding the Moon as a settlement prospect based on the notion -strongly promoted by space advocates- that it offered a more complete potential for sustained colonization than the Moon based on a larger diversity of resources and the presence of water ice. (Of course, today we know that water ice is also present on the Moon, which is part of the motivation for more recent renewed interest in the Moon as a destination, but Mars may still host a much greater diversity of materials)
It would thus seem there is a strong possibility of a very well established human presence on Mars by the time the means for engaging in a concerted terraforming project is realized. Would ballistic geoengineering still be a viable option on a well-settled Mars -especially when those settlements will tend to concentrate at the poles in search of water ice? We need to consider a number of possible scenarios, including one where Mars is not terraformed wholesale at all but comprehensively settled in a largely identical way to the Moon.
One important thing we have going for us is that, by the time the ballistic geoengineering option becomes practical, nanotechnology should also be coming into its own -moving from relatively small scale hermetic systems applications to use in large scale fabrication and processes in ambient environments. We will discuss the specifics of the possible evolutionary path for nanotechnology in another section. What’s important here is that this technology may reach a stage by this point in the future that it can perform processes and construction on large scale with little to no cost or human labor overhead. This would be especially the case if it has realized the creation of NanoFoam -a self-assembling, self-transforming, and self-aware diamondoid material that hosts its own integral colonies of nanoassemblers and nanoprocessor ‘organelles.’
With such technology the prospect of relocating a large Martian settler population to safe zones for the sake of a ballistic geoengineering project would not be a particular problem as the wholesale reconstruction of settlements in new locations would be a relatively quick and simple process. Indeed, the advent of NanoFoam may allow for the automated pre-settlement of most any natural body in the solar system with the delivery of a payload as small as soccer ball yet containing the full means to create functional energy, resource, industrial, and life-support infrastructures and initial habitats with little to no human intervention.
However, this same technology would also afford subtler means of performing the tasks that ballistic geoengineering would at almost the same pace. In the later Solaria section we will be discussing the concept of Rhizomes; vast unmanned sub-surface infrastructure complexes created by nanomining and nanofrabrication that spread out under vast surface areas like the root structure of a great plant to tap various resources and create various systems and structures. Alone, these complexes may become a habitat for colonies of future artilects living in virtual habitats. They would also function as infrastructure to support organic human habitats, grown into and above the Rhizome. This author has dubbed such habitats Biozomes and it this kind of construction that would make relocating settlements so easy. But this ability to self-assemble vast ‘tap root’ networks would allow Rhizome complexes to intersperse, at exponentially expanding rates of growth, the same vast areas of strata that would be impacted by an intentional cometary strike and establish a complex of innumerable small systems for the wholesale release of water vapor from trapped ice and deeper mineral compounds driven -possibly- by chemical energy and energy from latent geothermal heat.
Nanotechnology could also enhance another aspect of terraforming; colonial flora. Many strategies for terraforming suggest the genetic engineering of especially hardy varieties of plants to increase their speed of growth and enhance their resilience so they can be seeded on Mars to establish a self-sustaining biome that can carry-on the process of atmospheric modification. But even with the benefit of genetic engineering, the Mars environment is so harsh that even such super-hardy plants would only be able to survive after a significant degree of atmospheric change has already been accomplished. But it may be possible to create living plant/nanosystem hybrids -cybernetic plants, if you will- where living plant tissues host symbiotic nanomechanisms that can afford the plants new properties allowing for survival in even the extremes of the unmodified Martian environment. For instance, the nanomechanisms could actively armor their hosts, encase them in their own self-grown micro-greenhouses, amplify their photosynthesis, metabolize mineral compounds difficult for the natural organism to use, and provide active countermeasures to climate extremes and UV radiation damage. Likely candidates for such adaptation would be simpler forms of plants, such as lichens, high altitude adapted succulents, and the like. Much as they support human habitats in the form of Biozomes, the Rhizome complex could similarly function as a life support system for these hybrid plants and propagate them along the planet surface wherever it extends below. In fact, the Rhizome could harness these plants as key mechanisms for atmospheric conversion.
With such technology and new capability potentially available, we can envision several possible scenarios for the future of Mars. Let’s examine them in more detail.
The Ballistic Terraformed MarsEdit
This is the original scenario as envisioned by Marshal Savage in TMP and is based on the steering of a comet on Mars-intersecting orbit to impact the planet with a possible planned break-up of the comet by nuclear explosive to spread impact area so the thermal effect is optimized and the maximum water vapor released. A series of modest-sized comets would be directed to impact Mars over some time -perhaps periodically and perpetually in order to replenish the artificially created atmosphere. The likely tools for this comet steering based on current science is the gravity tug and laser ablative thrust. A gravity tug is a deep-space craft of some sizable mass designed to simply travel in proximity to an asteroid or comet -particularly at the critical perihelion/aphelion points in its orbit- using its own mass to slightly shift the trajectory of the natural body near it. These vessels may also employ powerful lasers to fire pulses at specific points of an asteroid/comet surface to cause bursts of ablated material which would behave in the manner of a rocket thrust. This technique may also prove very useful in controlling the rotation of asteroids and comets to facilitate mining.
After bombardment, an immediately increased and growing atmospheric pressure and increased surface temperature would allow for a comprehensive surface cultivation campaign based on a series of adapted plant life, likely starting with forms of the most die-hard of plants, lichens. It may still be some generations before humans can begin traversing the surface of Mars without pressure suits and centuries -if ever- before they can breath without assistance and the planet can play host to animal life, though forms of arctic marine life may be possible to deploy sooner in newly created lakes and oceans. Even with a terraforming program, human lifestyle on Mars will be dominated for a long time by life in large pressurized habitats, though with a thickening atmosphere surface habitats would no longer need to be as extremely robust as they were for initial settlers and vast habitable surface greenhouse complexes could be readily deployed.
This scenario assumes that Mars has a relatively modest population that can be moved either to equatorial safe zones or to temporary shelters on the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos during this cometary bombardment. It also assumes that construction of these new habitats -or later reconstruction of original settlements- will be quick and low in cost. Since bombardment may be performed over a protracted period -perhaps a whole generation- these alternative settlements would need to be as fully functional and comfortable as permanent settlements and may never be completely abandoned after the bombardment cycle is complete.
Of course, a very well-settled Mars with a large population and a large dependency on the polar regions for resources may not be a likely candidate for this strategy and whether or not the planet is sparsely or greatly settled may depend on how much time there is between establishing the capability for ballistic geoengineering and the initiation of human settlement. It’s a bit of a toss-up. We may preclude the option for this fast-track approach terraforming by our compulsion to fast-track Mars settlement.
The Slow-Track Terraforming of MarsEdit
This is the strategy most often described for terraforming Mars and it is based on a slow process of atmospheric modification using large industrial plants that pump out super-greenhouse gasses and water vapor over a span of centuries. As surface temperatures and atmospheric pressures increase adapted plant colonization would be introduced to accelerate the process. Many plant species in a succession of cultivation phases would be used, each type creating a biome to support the cultivation of the next. Eventually, liquid water would persist and, slowly, a hydrologic cycle would develop concentrating on the Equatorial areas as persistent lakes and seas form. Pressure sufficient for lighter forms of habitat structure and elimination of pressure suits would be achieved, though centuries more would be required before humans and animals could operate on the surface without supplemental oxygen.
The key challenge of this strategy is that settlers would have to commit to the deployment of vast capital-intensive systems and programs over many generations with very slow paces of measurable progress -incremental to the point where the results would constantly be subject to doubt because they would be so difficult to definitively measure. (a problem we’re quite familiar with today with the perpetual debate over Global Warming data) Thousands of these large atmosphere plants would need to be built at a time when Martian settlement is quite modest and maintained in continuous operation for generations. It’s likely that such investments would tend to be limited to individual settlements and thus their expansion keyed to the growth in settlement over time, which would tend to make the whole process all the much slower and the results all that much more difficult to measure. So while this is the most commonly discussed strategy, it may also be the most speculative because commitment to such an expensive project over such a long space seems unlikely in the context of a contemporary society that now barely manages the patience to complete the most modest public works projects.
The Rhizome Terraformed MarsEdit
This scenario assumes a robust available nanotechnology that allows for the creation of Rhizome complexes, as we will discuss in more detail in the Solaria phase. A Rhizome complex is a subterranean energy, industrial, and communications infrastructure that is self-created by nanomachines. The chief construction process is nanomining, where colonies of nanoassemblers in a fluid medium construct root-like fractal networks of fluid-filled tunnels with diamondoid walls through strata in search of resources to exploit and process by molecular decomposition and transport through the assemblers’ fluid medium. These self-creating root structures would grow exponentially as the assemblers self-replicate as the network expands and could permeate endless kilometers of sub-surface area with little to no human assistance. Like a living organism, the Rhizome would self-organize, sensing the most efficient paths for the highest concentration of materials, energy, and communication flow and creating tunnel structures of progressively greater volume along those paths. Along these paths key communications and transit systems would be fabricated-in-place; fiber optic communications lines, power lines, and automated rapid transit subways. At key linking points volume storage, processing, factory, chemical energy fuel cell plants, and data centers would ‘grow’, fabricated in large underground nodules or cells. These might also be linked to deep ‘tap roots’ that exploit latent geothermal heat through thermocouple systems, IR photovoltaics, ferro-fluid magnetohydrodynamic loops, or advanced forms of Rankin cycle systems. These nodal points would also link to on/at surface structures that grow like the fruit and flowers of a plant -satellite or interplanetary communications centers, solar power arrays, wind turbine arrays, greenhouse complexes, facilities for surface robots, habitats for human beings, and so on.
Such a powerful ability for the self-fabrication of large area infrastructures would be well suited to a terraforming scheme. Wherever the Rhizome extends, it could ‘grow’ in place plant-like surface structures that exude water vapor and super-greenhouse gasses like the atmosphere conversion plants of the Slow-Track scenario -only here they would be small, number in the billions, be self-built altogether, and perpetually self-maintaining. The system could also harness living plants as part of its systems, helping to distribute and support from beneath colonies of plants that might not be able to survive on the surface by themselves. The exponential rates of growth for Rhizome complexes would allow this process to proceed at a far more rapid pace than possible with discreetly built atmosphere plants and since the Rhizome network would function as its own sensor-net, it would be able to monitor its terraforming progress comprehensively.
Of course, we’re assuming a very sophisticated technology here, but this is not ‘nanomagic’ and is well within the realm of possibilities currently anticipated by the emerging nanotechnology field. It’s just a question of when, in the course of future history, this particular mix of capabilities is realized.
The Mars BiozomeEdit
We generally think of the concept of terraforming as being about the wholesale transformation of a planet’s ambient environment into something approximating that of the Earth and that this process is largely about the conversion of the whole planetary atmosphere. But it’s important to bear in mind that, at any particular point in time, the settlers of a new planet only need an environment as large as they -and any flora and fauna they bring with them- are actually inhabiting. The only practical difference, therefore, between the biosphere of a whole planet and the biome of a small built habitat structure is size and if the latter is readily and endlessly expandable on-demand, then it too represents another approach to terraforming.
Given a sufficiently convenient means to build habitat structures of scale, the proposition of wholesale terraforming may, for future Mars settlers, become moot. We can terraform-to-order as much space as we would actually need/want to use instead of taking the very protracted process of transforming a planet whole and actively maintaining it. With the advent nanotechnology robust enough to build Rhizome complexes large enough to actually engage in terraforming comes also the just as convenient means to build pressurized habitats -Biozomes- like greenhouses hundreds of kilometers in area, able to enclose mountains if necessary, and all built and maintained without human intervention. These would have a distinct advantage over the conventional notion of terraforming in that they would provide fully Earth-like environments right-away and the atmosphere they contain would not be whittled-away over time by the solar winds. Given sufficient collective/connected scale and the ability to perpetually self-repair, they would be no less safe and reliable than a converted atmosphere. In effect, we could give Mars a skin instead of an atmosphere, built up as we need it.
The original TMP proposed such a strategy at the more modest scale of whole asteroids -given that there is no possibility of terraforming those bodies in the conventional sense. Instead of just building individual enclosed habitats on them, one could build a transparent pressure hull entirely enclosing them. It’s quite possible that the settlers of Mars, looking at the untenable time scales and limited result of traditional terraforming schemes, may decide them simply redundant when they can enclose as much surface space as they need or want on demand -enclosing the whole planet eventually if that actually proves necessary. Ultimately, the choice may be more aesthetic than practical. Is the sky of vast domed spaces that much less a sky than that of an un-skinned blanket of atmosphere? It’s hard to say what our future Mars inhabitants may think about that. After all, even with the fastest terraforming approach, most Mars inhabitants will live for many generations under artificial skies.
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- Key Disruptive Technologies of the Post-Industrial Era