Curious Kids: Could we change other planets in the solar system to be able to live there?
Of the eight planets in the solar system, we live on Earth, and for good reason. It has the perfect conditions for life.
Right now, however, we are sculpting the Earth’s surface through deforestation and changing its atmosphere by adding carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. These changes have led to global warming, which may lead us to fear that in the future, the Earth will no longer be such a good place to live.
Perhaps this ability to change a planet could make another place in the solar system suitable for life. This planetary engineering is called “terraforming”.
In our solar system, the planets most similar to Earth are Mars, which is a little farther from the Sun, and Venus, which is a little closer to the Sun. However, they are still very different from Earth.
There are many ways these planets are different from Earth. One is the gases that are in the atmosphere. The atmosphere of Mars and that of Venus are mainly composed of carbon dioxide. The atmosphere of either planet does not contain any amount of oxygen to speak of, meaning that at this time we would not be able to breathe on either planet. planets.
Mars is generally considered the most promising planet for terraforming. However, in addition to being composed mostly of carbon dioxide, the atmosphere on Mars is very thin. It does not press down on the planet with the same weight as the Earth’s atmosphere.
This pressure from the atmosphere is what keeps water on Earth liquid – so we can drink it and plants can use it to grow. Almost all water on Mars is ice, except for some water vapor in the atmosphere.
In order to create an atmosphere in which we could breathe and create enough pressure to keep water liquid, we would need to pump a lot of air into Mars’ atmosphere – a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen – until ’till the atmosphere is about as heavy. like that of the Earth.
It might be possible to find this nitrogen and oxygen on Mars, whose soil contains significant amounts of nitrate – a molecule of one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms.
But that would cause problems, including extracting nutrients from the soil that might be needed for plant growth.
Mars is also a very cold place, with an average temperature of around -60 degrees Celsius.
To change that, we would need to help its atmosphere retain heat. This is called the greenhouse effect. We could do this by pumping more carbon dioxide and methane into it (methane has been found on Mars). This would warm Mars and melt much of its ice, creating a water cycle like in Earth’s climate. Mars would have seas, rivers and precipitation like Earth.
Mars or Venus?
Alternatively, we could think of terraforming Venus. Venus’ gravity is quite similar to Earth’s, but for reasons that are not fully understood, its atmosphere is almost a hundred times heavier than Earth’s. The weight of the atmosphere weighing on us would crush us.
To reduce the weight of the atmosphere on Venus to make it more like Earth’s atmosphere, we would need to remove the carbon dioxide and some of the nitrogen.
Unfortunately, if we knew how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on such a massive scale, we had better do it on Earth in order to slow global warming.
Mars and Venus have reached a different natural state than Earth. If we turn them into Earth-like planets, it means unbalancing them. Left alone, they would change again. A terraformed Mars or Venus would require constant effort to maintain.
It would be much simpler and easier to build an artificial space colony, large enough to hold an entire ecosystem of plants, animals, and other life forms. We could then even possibly travel to another star system, where we might find a more Earth-like planet. But we do not yet have the capacity to do so.
Until then, the best kind of terraforming would be to reduce humanity’s footprint on Earth.
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