Image: Mars
Scientists predict humans will live on Mars before the century's end.
updated 6/25/2007 2:21:15 PM ET 2007-06-25T18:21:15

Mars will be transformed into a shirt-sleeve, habitable world for humanity before century's end, made livable by thawing out the coldish climes of the red planet and altering its now carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.

How best to carry out a fast-paced, decade by decade planetary facelift of Mars — a technique called "terraforming" — has been outlined by Lowell Wood, a noted physicist and recent retiree of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a long-time visiting rellow of the Hoover Institution.

Lowell presented his eye-opening Mars manifesto at flight school, held here June 20 to June 22 at the Aspen Institute, laying out a scientific plan to "experiment on a planet we're not living on."

Humans: a terraforming species
"I suggest that the near-term outlook is that Mars will be terraformed," Wood said, and seriously underway by the middle of this century and essentially complete by the end of the 21st century.

Wood defined terraforming as "the purposeful alteration of the physical environment to increase its habitability for humans." He noted that we homo sapiens are a terraforming species, pointing to our own planet's alteration over time.

"We're currently in the tenth millennium of the terraforming era," Wood said. Similarly, Mars will be will every other piece of the solar system that we can get to...if-and-as humanity becomes truly space-faring, he explained.

"The terraforming impulse in humankind will be quenched only by massive adverse selective pressure," Wood reported. Terraforming nay-sayers seem to ignore the fundamentals of population genetics, sociobiology and human history, he argued.

Mars is far easier to terraform than the moon, Wood advised. "It's kids' stuff as far as rendering it (Mars) into something that's human habitable quickly and easily. The moon is a good bit tougher."

Thermal depression
Wood said that Mars currently is "stuck" in a semi-permanent "thermal depression." But there is a multiplicity of design solutions, he foresees, such as engineering an artificial greenhouse effect at the planet that warms the world and makes it "a more preferred planet."

Overall, Wood said that a workable plan can be scripted to raise the average temperature of Mars, rid the world of excess carbon dioxide, as well as generate soil to support agriculture.

After roughly one to three decades of such warming, Wood continued, the "Great Spring" literally erupts all over Mars. It's all a matter of trimming-and-tailoring a thawed Mars to the "biospheric optimum," he concluded.

Responded Esther Dyson, Chairman of EDventure and host of the Flight School: "This is not a project that would fit the time horizon of any venture capitalist."

But Wood said that the effort is doable, but with a caveat.

"I believe it's roughly a 50-50 chance that young children now alive will walk on martian meadows...will swim in martian lakes," Wood said. It is not technology, nor money, he said, the pacing ingredient is marshaled will.

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