Terraforming Mars might be impossible… for now

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Making Mars more Earth-like would be a gargantuan task. From giant mirrors to tiny microbes, here’s the thinking behind making Mars habitable for humans.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

At the end of 1990’s sci-fi adventure Total Recall, all it takes is the push of a button. In a matter of minutes, Mars’ sky transforms from a hellish red to an Earth-like blue. After nearly suffocating on the Martian surface just moments before, Arnold Schwarzenegger takes in lungfuls and lungfuls of that sweet, sweet breathable Martian air.

This is terraforming, the concept of making a planet more hospitable to humans, and it’s been cropping up in pop culture since the early 1900s, everywhere from books to movies to video games. Once upon a time, the idea of turning Mars into Earth 2.0 might have been merely a fanciful notion, as theoretical as actually going to the planet at all.

But in 2020, Mars is very much on the agenda. NASA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic — they all want to put space boots on the ground, and in some cases as soon as the 2030s. But as scientists work toward blastoff, the concept of terraforming will most likely be a case of “failure to launch.”

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Will your next job be on Mars?

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NASA Mars recruitment poster NASA/KSC

Look around the space where you are sitting. How many of the things you see were not available to you as a child? Perhaps you note a laptop, smart phone or Wi-Fi connection? Now imagine these things vanished. What would your life be like? Think back to when you were a child. Could you have imagined the items you now can’t live without?

This same dynamic may soon be on the horizon for jobs on Mars—we may one day wonder how we ever confined our human activities to Earth.

Advancing technology continues to create more unique and interesting jobs—for now, all of them based on planet Earth. But change may be upon us.

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Is Colonizing Mars the most important project in human history?

The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carries a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope

The Red Planet is a freezing, faraway, uninhabitable desert. But protecting the human species from the end of life on Earth could save trillions of lives.

The Earth and Mars are a bit like fraternal twins that slowly grew apart. Four billion years ago, both planets were warm, sheathed by protective atmospheres, and carved with rivers and pools of liquid water. But today, Mars is an irradiated desert enveloped by a thick miasma of carbon dioxide, while its twin is a sensationally fertile orb and, for all we know, the universe’s cosmic jackpot of life.

These divergent stories make scientists immensely curious: Can we discover evidence of a fecund past in the Martian ground? We’re closer than ever to finding out. Ellen Stofan, the former chief scientist of nasa and current head of the National Air and Space Museum, has predicted that we will find evidence of past life on Mars in as little as a decade.

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