Mars is our closest planetary neighbour, and has inspired the human imagination for thousands of years, with thinkers from various civilization dreaming of exploring the Red Planet. Once thought to harbour intelligent life, modern science has revealed that Mars is a cold and desolate place. Despite this the planet continues to entrance us, with several projects underway to send humans to Mars in coming years.
Mars is interesting not only due to its relative proximity to Earth but also because it is arguably the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. While Venus is almost the same size of Earth it is a hellishly hot planet where the greenhouse effect has run amok. Comparatively, while Mars is cold, there are periods of Earth-like temperatures during summer at lower latitudes. Furthermore, despite only sixty-two percent Earth gravity, Mars has roughly same amount of land as Earth, a twenty-four hour day, permanent ice-caps and a similar axial tilt.
While we are familiar with the Martian endeavours of NASA and company, another entrant in the race to explore Mars is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA has long been the place which conducts the studies and science that pushes technological frontiers for the U.S. military. It was from DARPA research that things such as 3D mapping, GPS, and ARPANET the ancestor of the Internet, were created.
DARPA is interested in changing the Martian environment – currently a desert, lacking liquid water or a thick atmosphere – to suit human habitation. Currently, DARPA is seriously looking into ways to terraform Mars. According to Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA,
“For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay.”
One such method is the use of genetically engineered algae, bacteria and plants to radically change the atmosphere of Mars. Another method could see humans melting the ice caps, which are mostly composed of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice. Melting the ice caps would cause an extreme greenhouse effect with the carbon dioxide thickening the atmosphere, allowing the planet to retain more heat, thus raising the temperature. Yet another idea involves using giant space based mirrors to melt water trapped as permafrost under the Martian soil, creating seas on the Red planet.