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New Earths: Transforming Other Planets for Humanity

port holes to future dreams (Mars Society photo)
by Jim Oberg
Houston - Mar 30, 2004
Terraforming other worlds may take decades to accomplish, and the go-ahead may still be centuries away. So why does such a far-out topic deserve an entire book? What possible value could such a book have?

I believe the time is ripe for such a book, and that the topic of terraforming is worth investigating right now, in the closing years of the twentieth century, and in the still infant years of the Space Age. This topic will be studied more deeply in the future, and this book will be rewritten innumerable times, but a start must be made.

First of all, we now know just enough hard facts about other planets so that our speculations can be grounded in practicality and reality. The atmosphere of Venus has been probed; robots have surveyed the surface of Mars; Mercury, the Jupiter system, and Saturn have been reconnoitered by spacecraft. Speculations have been answered, while new questions have been raised, but enough hard data is right now becoming available to allow us to construct the first tentative scenarios of planetary engi- neering.

Secondly, a wide circle of people has begun to do this kind of work. Yet, until now, they have been working largely in isolation-alone, "re- inventing the wheel," or being stymied by problems other researchers have solved. In the past, people with excellent ideas about terraforming have kept them to themselves, or buried them in a desk drawer because they did not realize that anyone else was interested.

Thirdly, the topic has achieved a level of scientific respectability that shows signs of engendering further studies. For instance, NASA funded a project on transforming Mars. A group of students at the Laboratory on Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder has been engaged in a broad-based and high quality program to inves- tigate problems of terraforming Mars and Venus. Popular science articles, as opposed to footnotes and half-page fillers, have appeared in magazines such as Astronomy, Future, and OMNI. The program committee of the Tenth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in March 1979 gave its blessing to an unofficial session on terraformingj while cau- tioning that the topic was sufficiently "speculative" and not sufficiently "connected with current topics in planetary exploration" to warrant a formal inclusion in the scientific program.

So the concept of terraforming is a vigorous one, attracting both popular and scientific interest. But why should this be so? Why should the possibility of planetary engineering (the artificial alteration of the physical and biological conditions of a planet or moon with the ultimate goal of making it habitable for Earth life forms) be studied when it may be centuries before we know enough to even decide if it's a good idea?

Even today, we can imagine several compelling reasons which de- mand that the possibilities involved with terraforming be studied carefully. First, it's an exciting idea of a possible future that may be complementary to, or an entire replacement of the popular notions of colonies in space. Such thinking, even at an idealized level, has a valuable role in providing options for our future directions. Secondly, the techniques of terraforming will be grand extensions of contemporary techniques in weather and climate control. In an era when human activities have begun to alter Earth's environment on a planetary scale, and when natural forces may well be preparing to make negative changes on our climate, we need to know the mechanics of climate and what affects it. Thirdly, the intellec- tual excitement of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence ("SETI") re- quires that we consider all possible manifestations by which such alien civilizations may make themselves known to us. While most scholars suggest that we will pick up their radio transmissions, it is entirely possible that we will detect their existence by noticing the results of their planetary and stellar engineering activities, if we know what such secondary effects might look like.

This book is not an endorsement of planetary engineering, but rather an attempt to examine the factors involved in such activities should that goal ever be seriously established. If any point of view is to be advocated it is that our options must be kept open, and that the possibility of re- building other planets to make them suitable homes for people is a le- gitimate subject for study and for debate.

Since this book is meant merely as an introduction to this topic and an exposition of the leading problems associated with planetary engi- neering, there is obviously a need for a more complete technical treatment of the subject. I have already begun work on this project. The book, Handbook of Terraforming, will incorporate the world reaction to this book, so I solicit critiques and suggestions.

  • The main section of this essay is available via this link.

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