This weekend appears to be shaping up with a theme: news from space that isn’t about Mars. I swear that it’s entirely accidental. First there was the discovery of the diamond planet, 55 Cancri e, and now a story about the merits of terraforming another planetary neighbor. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s not Mars for a change.
Yes, it seems that there is a strong case for terraforming Venus instead of the Red Planet, and it comes from numerous scientists who claim that altering the climate on that planet could help us save our own. The reason being – and stop me if this sounds frightening – is because our planet could one day look just like our lifeless, acid ridden, cloud covered neighbor.
In short, Venus underwent a carbon-dioxide fueled cataclysm a long time ago, when it was still young and was believed to have oceans. In those early days, and as the sun got brighter, Venus’s oceans began to boil and evaporate into the atmosphere. As a result, carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere, due in part to the lack of carbon recycling which depends on the presence of oceans and seaborne algae. This is essentially a magnified version of the Greenhouse Effect, which scientists identify as the reason for rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps here at home.
Because of this, Venus became the hot, deadly planet that we are familiar with today, with surface temperatures that average 467°C (872°F), hot enough to melt lead. What’s more, its atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide, which appear as thick layers of clouds that float 50-70 km above the surface. Above that, clouds and mist of concentrated sulfuric acid and gaseous sulfur dioxide lead to acid rains that could literally melt the flesh off your bones and the metal off a landing craft. Combined with the amount of sunlight it gets (twice that of Earth) and the lack of a magnetosphere, Venus is a pretty damn awful place to visit!
Of course, some would say that this makes terraforming the planet a pretty dangerous and poor prospect, at least compared to Mars. However, the benefits of terraforming Venus are far greater, certainly when we consider that the lessons gleamed from it could help us reverse the Greenhouse Effect here on Earth. In addition, it’s closer than Mars, making it easier and quicker to travel back and forth. And like the Earth, it resides within the solar system’s habitable zone and has its own atmosphere, not to mention it is nearly the same mass and size as Earth.
All of this, when taken together, would make Venus a far more suitable place to live once the terraforming process was complete. In short, its easier to convert an existing atmosphere than to create one from scratch. And, as noted, the process of converting the CO2 and sulfur-rich atmosphere into one that a breathable one that is rich with water and precipitation would go a long way to helping us device solutions to cleaning up our own atmosphere here at home.
This may sound like pure speculation, but in truth, many solutions have already been proposed. In fact, Carl Sagan began proposing that we introduce genetically-modified airborne algae into Venus atmosphere 50 years ago. Thought not 100 percent practical, it was a stepping stone to some more recent ideas which may prove doable. In 1981, NASA engineer James Oberg proposed that all the CO2 could be blown out into space. Again, not the most practical idea, but they were thinking and that’s what matters!
More recently, Paul Birch, a writer for the British Interplanetary Society, proposed flooding Venus with hydrogen. Once it interacting with the high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the end products would be graphite and plenty of water. Other plans involve carbon capture, nanotechnology, and other advanced forms of ecological engineering. These, alone or in combination, could prove to be the difference between thick glass clouds and sulfuric oceans and a lush green planet covered with water and vegetation.
A pretty interesting prospect; and if it all works out, humanity could end up with three habitable planets within the Solar System alone. Combined with pressure domes and sealed arcologies on the system’s various moons and larger asteroids, planet Earth could one day retire as the sole host of humanity and this thing we call “civilization”. In fact, I could foresee a time when our world goes on to become hallowed ground, hosting only a few hundred million people and free of heavy industry or urban sprawl. Hello idea for a story!
And, to mix up what I usually say at the end of every one of these posts, stay tuned for more news from Mars and other planets within our Solar System. There’s a lot of them out there, and someday, they might all places that our species calls “home”.