Should we terraform Mars?

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Can we engineer organisms to survive the radiation hitting the surface there without a planetary magnetosphere or will terraforming be more of an underground thing, or both?  We know for sure that at least 2 different Earth bacteria will thrive in Martian Atmospheric conditions.  See the talk by Andrew Schuerger given in the lectures on The Present Day Habitability of Mars (Click on video on the right)

Thank you Gavril.  I looked MAVEN up and found that we'll be able to send ours names along with it on .  I forgot to add that I think that we should terraform Mars and not think twice about it if we find it to be a sterile place.  If we were to find some biochemical activity on Mars at whatever stage of evolution we should at least try to harness any uniqueness it might have for its own sake and our own advantage, even allowing for engineering on it.

I crafted  and already submitted my own original message to Mars which was requested to be in the form of a haiku poem. Five syllables were requested for the first and last lines, seven for the middle one.  This is it

Viewing from MAVEN
Solar system sanctuary
Mars is that haven

I'm having doubts about engineering on any exobiology, whether that would be too invasive and I'd only meant it relative to micro organisms.  Would it be unethical in terms of preservation of all species based on their potential benefits and the possibility of losing them if manipulated to whatever degree?  Would it be unethical to terraform another world in an integrative fashion, with life having independently evolved on it, but still in an early simple stage and with the possibility of modifying it to serve us?  Possibly it depends on what level type civilisation a relatively newly living world is approached in and their resources to salvage different exo-species.

I wonder, barring a close super nova or some other cataclysm. if this journey can go on forever?  If not chances are some exo-species might 

That is my personal difficulty of justifying the terraformation of mars, if indeed there is life on it. What right do we have to to modify their home for our purpose? I support more the creation of a planetary sanctuary with only local terraforming (under large domes for example, or underground).

Totally! But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done with some amount of care and concern, and not before ruling out extant organisms. I think a reasonable case can be made, on the basis of the fossil record on Earth, that any increase in organismal complexity (jumps from cellular to multicellular, and simple multicellular to tissue- and organ/organ-system grade complex multicellular organisms) are accompanied by (and ultimately sustained through) expansion of the overall capacity of the biological system. Otherwise, the competitive selective pressures to continue the status quo within an ecosystem are enormous. In this context, it's not completely unreasonable to construct an ethical argument based on the premise that technological modification of our environment (the Earth and nearby environments) is reasonable if it ensures the continued survival of Earth's biosphere.

So I say go for it!

@ Sanjoy.  It would be very difficult if not impossible to not contaminate other areas on Mars were we to build habitats in the form of domes or underground habitats. All it would take would be a reproductive one single cell bacterium, of the type known capable to thrive on Mars surface and that would be it, a contamination  ensured with no hope of stopping it.  Mars similarity with Earth, in having surface water ice at the poles and an atmosphere in which at least 2 Earth bacteria are known to thrive in, would be its own undoing. I have a soft spot ''the creation of a planetary sanctuary'' too.   If humans chose not to terraform other worlds because they already had some native life interdependently evolving on it we would have to target sterile exo-terrains that have the natural resources to perpetuate our own species and the.other species we use as natural resources.  In the proximity of a Star it would not really matter where we dug in underground habitats to protect us from harmful radiation as long as it had ample natural resources and a similar gravity to what life has evolved to as present.  Of course we should also bear in mind that evolution will be able to overcome some of the present impediments to life beyond Earth and what delimits a healthy living at present may not always be the case or at least be less of a handicap in the future.

It would be immoral not to, whether there are extant microbes there or not.  I know putting it this baldly ruffles feathers, but it seems clearly true.  Consider:

1) A terraformed Mars would be a massively good thing for billions of human beings

2) We have a very clear obligation to assist human beings, who have undisputed moral value

3) Martian microbes might have moral value but even if they do, it's much less than that of a human being (and no, this is not just anthropocentrism).

I have a paper forthcoming on this, "The Curious Case of the Martian Microbes" and anyone can read a preprint on academia or researchgate if they wish...

Hi Kelly,

I'd enjoy reading your paper! Do you have a link? From a utilitarian approach, I totally agree with you. But speaking of value, wouldn't it be wiser to use the $ spent to colonize Mars on Earth to develop new technologies that would allow maximizing populations and minimizing corresponding resource consumption? Does that math even make sense? It's a terribly important and interesting question! Thanks for your comment!


Most of my stuff is available as preprints on researchgate or academia - here's a link to this particular one:

It might well be better morally to use the money for other purposes, but a few things to note here:

1) This all depends on how much it costs and what opportunity cost we incur by doing it.  If we are being futuristic, maybe terraforming Mars is fairly cheap, at least relative to the benefits.

2) This objection has nothing to do with the existence of microbes one way or the other.  It is, as you say, a straightforward utilitarian calculation.

3) This kind of objection always makes me a bit nervous, because its very similar to the classic "why spend money on space when there are so many problems on earth?"  While we do have to consider other uses for the money, I argue that at its limit this is very short term thinking.  If we accept that, in the long run, we will need to colonize space, then it is defensible to spend money to make that happen even when the short term payoff is less attractive than we might wish.



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