There seems to be a considerable buzz around Mars as the next ‘giant leap for mankind’. In particular, the crowd funded Mars One’s announcement to create a human settlement on Mars in 2025 saw over 20,000 people apply to be the first to colonise The Red Planet. Now, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has suggested a potential way to produce an atmosphere on Mars that might sustain our species. Migrating our species to the planet may mean sending genetically enhanced microorganisms, plants or even animals.
Mars may be the most Earth-like plant in the Solar System. Its gravity is 62% as strong as Earth’s, meaning a 70 kilogram space traveler may weigh around 44 kilograms on Mars. Mars may be smaller than Earth, however its absence of oceans affords it a similar land area. Additionally, the two planets both have 24-hour days, a similar tilt on their axis relative to the sun and permanent ice caps. These attributes, as well as its closeness to Earth, appear to make the Red Planet the next logical step for humankind’s interstellar expansion.
DARPA’s plan aims to warm Mars by thickening its atmosphere using an array of photosynthetic microorganisms, such as bacteria and plants. These creatures may capture the energy from sunlight and produce oxygen. Earth’s early atmosphere reportedly differed considerably from today’s, consisting of water vapour, carbon dioxide and ammonia. When photosynthetic bacteria (or cyanobacteria) eventually evolved, oxygen was released into the atmosphere. Billions of years of photosynthesis increased oxygen in the atmosphere to more than 20%, allowing life forms to thrive and evolve. DARPA intend to mimic this process in order to terraform Mars to sustain life.
At a recent biotechnology conference hosted by DARPA, the agency announced that, “For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform hostile places here on Earth [and] … to go into space to visit, [as well as] to stay.” The ‘technology toolkit’ DARPA refer to is called DTA GView and has been coined as the “Google Maps of genomes”. Essentially, the technology provides information about genes in any organism as well as where they may be found in its genome.
“This genomic data we’re now collecting is awesome, except they sit in databases, where they remain data, [rather than] knowledge. Very little genetic information we have is actionable,” said Alicia Jackson, Deputy Director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I [may] best engineer an organism.”
The ambition of this research is to genetically engineer organisms that may survive in challenging conditions and are capable of repairing environments. Jackson said, “There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology.” Once perfecting the terraforming of places on Earth that are challenging to inhabit, DARPA intend to set its sights on Mars.
Terraforming Mars may require growing organisms on Earth and then dispatching them on a voyage to Mars where they may require encouragement to grow in Martian conditions. Other ideas to terraform the planet include melting the polar ice caps, which are mostly made of carbon dioxide in order to elicit an extreme greenhouse effect. This might thicken the atmosphere sufficiently to retain solar energy and warm the surface, and even produce rain. Massive mirrors positioned in space might also be used to reflect sunlight onto the surface of Mars to melt the ice and possibly create planetary seas.
The visionary creator of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, speaks about his passion for establishing a human colony on Mars in his recent biography. Teams within SpaceX apparently have designs for the engines and the rocket already, which might travel to Mars. If successful, sculpting Mars into a world qualified to support human life may be a real possibility.
Where else in the universe might enhanced microbes be used to create a productive human habitat?