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Excerpt from the novel Red Mars
(Kim Stanley Robinson. Bantam Books, 1993)

Background: It's 2026. The first human expedition to Mars has landed and a small group on a survey mission is arguing about whether or not to investigate the north polar ice cap.

Finally Ann got on the phone, her voice very curt and arrogant, though she looked scared. "I'm the geological head here, and I say it needs to be done. There won't be any better opportunity to get onsite data on the original condition of the polar cap. It's a delicate system, and any change in the atmosphere is going to impact it heavily. And you've got plans to do that, right? Sax, are you still working on those windmill heaters?"

Sax had not been part of the discussion, and he had to be called to the phone. "Sure," he said when the question was repeated. He and Hiroko had come up with the idea of manufacturing small windmills, to be dropped from dirigibles all over the planet. The constant westerlies would spin the windmills, and the spin would be converted to heat in coils in the base of the mills, and this heat would simply be released into the atmosphere. Sax had already designed a robotic factory to manufacture the windmills; he hoped to make them by the thousands. Vlad pointed out that the heat gained would come at a price of winds slowed down-you couldn't get something for nothing. Sax immediately argued that that would be a side benefit, given the severity of the global dust storms the wind sometimes caused. "A little heat for a little wind is a great trade-off."

"So, a million windmills," Ann said now. "And that's just the start. You talked about spreading black dust on the polar caps, didn't you Sax?"

"It would thicken the atmosphere faster than practically any other action we could take."

"So, if you get your way," Ann said, "the caps are doomed. They'll evaporate and then we're going to say, "I wonder what they were like?" And we won't know."

Science fiction? Certainly, but not science fantasy. On May 25, 2008 NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander touched down in the Martian arctic. The data Phoenix sent back contributes to our understanding of the history of water on Mars and the habitability potential of Martian arctic soil.

Thanks to information provided by better technology and the success of NASA satellite, probe and robotic missions to Mars, we now have a better picture of the Martian surface, its atmosphere and composition. We know that it is a very cold, dry planet that has seasons twice as long as the ones on Earth. Its atmosphere is thinner than Earth's and composed of mostly carbon dioxide. It has carbon dioxide polar ice caps, volcanoes and dust storms. As for water, data from the Mars Odyssey orbiter suggested that it's there, frozen, about three feet below the planet's surface. Odyssey shows frozen sub-surface water covering much of Mars' northern hemisphere. Analysis of satellite images of Martian surface features support the vision that vast oceans once covered much of Mars. The Viking and Mars Observer missions, for example, showed geologic features indicating running water in the past. And finally, in July 2008, the Phoenix Lander confirmed the presence of water at a few centimeters depth under the loose surface soil.

What points to the possibility of life on Mars in the past? Extremophiles on Earth have been found at extermely deep, salty, acidic, hot, and cold environments. The discovery of a bacterium that thrives in the fluid-filled cracks deep in a gold mine in South Africa, for example, suggests it may be the key to life on other planets. This bacterium gets its energy from the radioactive decay of uranium in the surrounding rocks.

While the Phoenix Lander gathered data in the Martian arctic, other scientists and researchers focused their attention on Earth's polar regions. The fourth International Polar Year (2007-2008) provided a forum and incentive to collectively seek answers to a wide range of questions about Earth's poles. "What secrets, what clues to the planet's past, lie under the ice? How does life survive extreme cold and long dark? What structural and physiological adaptations evolved in cold waters and propagated throughout the oceans? What marvels of photochemistry occur when spring's first light strikes winter snow? How do microbial communities in the upper ocean influence cloudiness in the atmosphere above? What subtle richness of behavior, language and knowledge has allowed human communities to survive in the Arctic for thousands of years? How can ancient solid silent ice hold so much history and yet change so fast?" What we learn from the Earth polar research and also from the Phoenix Lander and other Mars missions will shape the direction and development of future Martian explorations.

Mars has a history that may have included periods of time when it was much more like Earth with water running on its surface and with a thicker atmosphere. Scientists use what they know about Earth spheres, Earth system processes and cycles (Earth analogues) to formulate theories about what Mars was like in the past, how it changed over time, what it is like today and how it might be changed to return it to a more habitable state, a process known as terraforming or ecosynthesis. Scientists theorize that the greenhouse effect could be used to return Mars to a state more conducive to possible Martian life forms.



A leading NASA advisory think tank has undertaken the task of exploring how to make Mars more hospitable to indigenous Martian biota (assuming such life forms exist). Because you know and understand the processes that drive the Earth's system, how those processes impact the Earth's spheres and how the spheres interact the think tank has asked you to develop a plan focused on the Martian poles to restore Mars to what it may once have been: warmer, wetter, with a greater atmospheric pressure. To complete and support your plan you will need to develop a Mars System Analysis for the fourth planet from our sun.


Date: 5/16/2008

Scenario Images:

Earth Mars
Earth and Mars look very different and they are very different. But what if? That's the question that ecosynthesis explores. Image credit: NASA

Mars Earth North Poles
Images of Mars and Earth North Poles. NOTE: Not to scale. Image credit: Original images NASA

Mars North Pole Water Map
Mars Odyssey gamma ray spetrometer data generated map of Mars North Pole. Full story. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Water Map Mars
This map shows the estimated lower limit of the water content of the upper meter of Martian soil. Full story. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Los Alamos National Laboratory

Mars Landscape Real
NASA'S Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this westward view from atop a low plateau where Sprit spent the closing months of 2007. more Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Mars Oceans
This picture shows how Mars might look if it had oceans.If Mars had an ocean, it would be in the north. Water would collect in the low regions around the North Pole, forming an ocean there. Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Mars Red
Today Mars is cold, dry inhospitable world. Mars, the Red. Artist's illustration. more Image credit - Thierry Lombry

Mars Brown
Mars after five hundred years of terraforming. Mars, the Brown. Artist's illustration. more Image credit - Thierry Lombry

Mars Blue
Mars after hundred of thousands of years of terraforming. Mars, the Blue. Artist's illustration. more Image credit - Thierry Lombry



Giving Mars Back Its Heartbeat (Cycle A)
Part II of the Terraforming Great Debate held at the Astrobiology Science Conference on March 30, 2004 where scientists and science fiction writers faced off in front of a packed audience to debate the promise and pitfalls of terraforming Mars.


Mars 101 (Cycle A)
Great site for information about Mars and links to Pheonix mission results and images.


Mars Climate and Climate Change (Cycle A)
The following resources explore Martian climate and climate change:


Mars Geology (Cycle A)
The following resources explore Martian geologic features, processes, and more:


Mars Polar Regions - Phoenix Mars Mission (Cycle A)
Information about Mars poles and menu links to polar comparisons and more.


Mars, the Blue Ecosynthesis (Cycle A)
Summary of terraforming history and stages.


Planetary Ecosythesis on Mars: Restoration Ecology and Environmental Ethics (Cycle A)
Read Dr. Chris McKay's "Planetary Ecosynthesis on Mars: Restoration Ecology and Environmental Ethics" to learn how this NASA Ames Research Center scientist views the possibilities of Mars.


Life at the Boundaries (Cycle B)
At a European Science Foundation and COST (European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research) 'Frontiers of Science' meeting in Sicily in October, scientists described apparently productive ecosystems in two places where life was not known before, under the Antarctic ice sheet, and above concentrated salt lakes beneath the Mediterranean. In both cases, innumerable tiny microbes are fixing or holding onto quantities of organic carbon large enough to be significant in the global carbon cycle.


Life on the Ice (Cycle B)
Information about the microbial life and fossils found in blue ice volcanic vents.


Making Sense of Mars Methane (Cycle B)
In a quest to understand the source of methane detected in the atmosphere of Mars, NASA scientists are looking at methane bubbling from the ground at an outdoor salt factory on Mexico's Baja Peninsula. By measuring carbon isotopes in the Mexican methane, these scientists hope to help unravel the mystery of the martian methane. In particular, they want to know whether or not the martian methane, like most methane on Earth, is made by microbes.


Mars: Extreme Planet (Cycle B)
Has links to "Mars here on Earth" Haughton-Mars Project. Provides views and info about Mars on Earth environments rocky polar desert. Can access Mars Quick Facts and Mars Atlas from here.


NASA Astrobiology Roadmap 2008 (Cycle B)
The Roadmap addresses three basic questions: how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond? Includes links to previous versions.


New signs of Polar Life (Cycle B)
Large colonies of micro-organisms living under rocks have been discovered in the most hostile and extreme regions of the Arctic and Antarctic - giving new insights on survival of life on other planets.


Are We Alone? (Cycle C)
In this NSTA Web Seminar Dr. Jim Rice, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Arizona State University's (ASU) Mars Education Program, talks about Astrobiology, extreme environments, some of the extreme places we have found life thriving on Earth, and the applications of these to Mars exploration. Free.


Extreme Planet Makeover (Cycle C)
The "Extreme Planet Makeover" on the NASA/JPL PlanetQuest site lets you roll up your sleeves and create your very own planet. Balance five factors to create an Earth-like habitable world, or get wild and make your own extreme exoplanet. Use the Image Gallery feature to compare your creation with those of other Earthlings. Once you've finished creating the exoplanet of your dreams, download a picture of your custom world for posterity.


How Stuff Works: Terraforming (Cycle C)
Great information and additional links that provide overview and details about the how's and why's of terraforming Mars without all of the technical stuff.


Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars (Cycle C)
Technical article by McKay and Zubin detailing the science behind terraforming.


Terraforming Mars: A Review of Research - Fogg (Cycle C)
This paper provides a thumb-nail sketch of the terraforming concepts that have appeared in the technical literature, focussing on the steps required in order to render Mars fit for anaerobic life.


The Ethical Dimensions of Space Settlements - Fogg (Cycle C)
Paper exploring the ethical issues surrounding space settlements.


Sample Investigations:


Extreme Planet Makeover (Cycle A)
This visually graphic interactive tool from the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories allows you to create your own planet. A great place to start exploring making Mars more Earthlike. To test your ideas about changing Mars, select Mars from the toolbar and begin your ecosynthesis.
Difficulty: beginner


Hands-On Snuggle Up with Mars: The Greenhouse Effect (Cycle A)
Conduct this hands-on investigation to explore how the impact of the Greenhouse Effect in a closed Earth-like system impacts temperature compared to an open Mars-like system.
Difficulty: advanced


Exploring Deep-Subsurface Life (Cycle B)
Challenging comprehensive curriculum.
Exploring Deep-Subsurface Life: Earth Analogues for Possible Life on Mars: Lessons and Activities. In the capstone lesson, students write a grant proposal for exploring another planet for life. The complete curriculum includes a workbook (pdf), students lesson and worksheets (doc) downloadable podcasts and a DVD. Indiana Princeton Tennessee Astrobiology Initiative.
Difficulty: advanced


Mars Terraforming Simulator: Testing Your Ideas (Cycle B)
Use the Terraforming Simulator to explore how changes in the Martian atmosphere and other properties impact surface temperatures on Mars.

The current offering on this page consists of the Mars Terraforming Simulator V1.1 which allows the user to alter the insolation and albedo of Mars, to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and then to compute the surface temperature. It now also includes a model of the putative carbon dioxide reservoirs on Mars, the polar caps and regolith, and their response to climate forcing. The algorithm is based on Dr Chris McKay (NASA Ames Research Center) empirical equations for determining the greenhouse effects of both carbon dioxide and added methane, ammonia and CFCs in the Martian atmosphere.
Difficulty: advanced

The simulator is pretty easy to use, but understanding the implications of the test results will be challenging for middle school students. Understanding the algorithms involved will be challenging for even the most advanced students. It is a tool, a model for testing ideas.


Terraforming: The Debate (investigation extension) (Cycle C)
Want to take this further? There are a myriad of ethical issues that arise when considering the possibility of ecosynthesizing Mars. Assuming that we can do it by one or more of the methods proposed, hold a debate to decide if we should.
Difficulty: advanced




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
        • Transfer of energy
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Populations and ecosystems
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
        • Earth in the solar system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Risks and benefits
        • Science and technology in society
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Structure and properties of matter
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural resources
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
        • Nature of scientific knowledge
        • Historical perspectives
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