The Martian absurdity

I saw this comment on Mastodon, and thought it so appropriate that it needs to be spread further.

alien 1: in summary, the humans have nearly rendered the blue planet uninhabitable. The only plan they appear to have is to migrate to the red planet.

alien 2: can they breathe the atmosphere of the red planet?

alien 1: no.

alien 2: is there material there they can eat?

alien 1: no.

alien 2: can the plants and animals of their planet live there?

alien 1: no.

alien 2: is there liquid water there?

alien 1: no.

alien 2: lol wtf?

alien 1: lol idk

WTF, IDK is how I feel about it, too.


  1. wzrd1 says

    A lot of goofball crap goes on on all antisocial media.
    Yesterday, I saw a debunking of an idiotic rumor, started from idiots not recognizing satire, that the military arrested the Secretary of Agriculture.
    Apparently, the idiots never heard of the Posse Comitatus Act, nor have the Trumpites heard of ex parte Milligan, when Lincoln was handed his ass by the SCOTUS when he tried to suspend habeas corpus in regions where the courts were still in session and hence, not an area where an emergency existed.

    Still, I do believe in a Martian colony – for scientific studies, hence, all stays are rather short to avoid health issues and logistically caused deaths. A scientist in a lab can till do far more than a robot roaming around a planet, albeit with the scientist staying a much shorter amount of time.
    And it’d be a first too, as with Apollo, we only sent scientists on the final mission. Pity, sending a geologist paid off on his first day on the lunar surface.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    A proper AI, with proper von Neumann replication equipment might find Mars just fine. A problem would be the lack of metal ores as the place never had plate tectonics.
    But apart from that, Kryten and Marvin would be fine.

  3. springa73 says

    To be fair, I don’t think that most planetary scientists who study Mars think that Mars is going to be a “second home” for humanity, or save us from extinction if earth can’t support us. I doubt that even most enthusiasts for humans on Mars think that it will be able to fill such a grand role. I would be happy with a small outpost for scientific missions, like wzrd1 said above.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    RagingBee @ 2
    Ever since I was a teenager I have pondered if anything can be done to Venus.
    But you would have to sequester all that carbon dioxide. And deal with the very slow axial rotation. And even if you cool the surface the crust remains hot- you would need to cool the crust down to several km depth to avoid getting a heat pulse slowly moving up to the surface frying the colonists.
    Maybe you could compress the Co2 into a dense metastable substance (like diamond is to carbon) and use solar energy to power reverse refrigeration, pumping up the heat on radiators so the heat radiates into space much faster (I think it is by a power of four).
    But the slow rotation remains a problem.
    Lock the rotation to the sun? That way you would get stable light zones.

  5. mattc867 says

    The whole lets-move-to-Mars concept is very strange to me. It’s hard to imagine anything that we could do to this planet, global nuclear winter included, that would render it less hospitable than Mars. I’m pretty sure that on the day after the asteroid hit that killed the dinosaurs Earth was still a better place to be than Mars.

  6. blf says

    Best option within an achievable timeframe would be to stop terraforming Earth.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    Springa73 @ 5
    If you are willing to wait 2000 years för the transport phase, you could divert significant amounts of mass (50% volatiles) from the “scattered component” of the Kuiper disc using very little delta-vee (because that subcategoty of objects already have very elliptic solar orbits).
    You would end up with an average of 2-3 m thick layer of comet gravel on the surface, plus a decent, primeval atmosphere. The magnetic field is a separate problem.

  8. says

    The human race is nowhere near being able to engineer whole planets, the best we can do is to try not to fuck up this one.

  9. ORigel says

    If we ever successfully develop general AI, the AIs can be the space colonists. They wouldn’t need an ecosystem to support them, so no need for them to embark on terraforming that would probably take tens of thousands of years. Maybe they can mine asteroids for trace elements being depleted on Earth or manufacture products in space to export to Earth (otherwise, there’d be no point to it all).

  10. ORigel says

    A fucked up Earth would still be much more hospitable than Mars. For example, during the End Permian extinction event, Earth had abundant liquid water, and an atmosphere with 12% O2.

  11. blf says

    ORigel@11, Instead of “otherwise, there’d be no point to it all” perhaps “otherwise, there may not be any profit$ from it at all” ?

  12. birgerjohansson says

    PZ Myers @ 10
    I absolutely agree the priority is to save the only existing biosphere. This is a political battle that will cuminate during the current century.
    Any ambitious effort to put human outposts on other planets will realistically happen well after this battle has been fought.
    The time factor means these two ambitions do not collide, no matter how optimistic certain billionaires are.
    If strong AI should be developed earlier than expected, they are welcome to travel any airless place they want.

  13. chrislawson says

    Major terraforming, if ever achieved by future humans, looks like a multi-millennial project. It took almost the entire biomass of Earth pumping out oxygen for 3 billion years before enough surface iron had oxidised to allow atmospheric levels that we can breathe.

  14. ORigel says

    @14 I don’t imagine people would be happy living in a small off-Earth colony for long. What would it be, a network of surface enclosures and underground tunnels on barren Mars?

  15. Akira MacKenzie says

    I’m still trying to figure out how they plan to keep any sort of atmosphere when Mars has no magnetosphere. Unless they can find a way to get the planet’s core up and running, the solar wind is just going to blow the gas into space.

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    @16 I don’t imagine people would be happy living in a small off-Earth colony for long.

    Who cares where they house our bodies once we are living in The Matrix?

  17. ORigel says

    Can it be feasible to constantly replenish the Martian atmosphere with a store of orbiting comets? (See how ridiculous terraforming really is?)

  18. microraptor says

    @10: And if we did get to the point of terraforming planets becoming a feasible idea, it would still be much easier to use that technology and information to fix Earth than colonize any other planet.

  19. weylguy says

    Don’t worry, fellow conservatives. The extreme solar and cosmic radiation on Mars will quickly transform us humans into super Christians, and as a plus it will also bleach everyone’s skin to pure white. No more minorities!

  20. robro says

    Perhaps sending humans to Mars is the best solution for Earth. We could start with the class of multi-billionaires who already aspire to be astronauts as the lead team, then send other multi-billionaires, then some run-of-the-mill billionaires. That would be about 3,000 people. Once they’ve established their presence there in a permanent, self-sustaining colony, we can consider sending centimillionaires to beef up the population. That’s estimated to be 12 million people. I’m sure they will all do great because they are so brilliant and work so hard.

  21. PaulBC says

    The libertarian fantasy of Mars has nothing to do with increasing habitable space. There is plenty of marginally habitable land on earth where it’s not considered cost-effective or desirable to live, but which is much easier to “settle” than Mars.

    The problem with earth is not a lack of space but the presence of people you disagree with and their governments, specifically the requirement to be a good citizen and get along with others who live nearby. Conversely, the great advantage of Mars is the presence of no one except like-minded libertarians who of course won’t cramp your style the way those big nasty governments do, and they’ll all be capable, creative, hardworking go-getters, not like all the “moochers” too lazy to explore new frontiers.

    Did I mention this is pure fantasy? Some concoction of Homestead Act mythos and a literal reading of Ayn Rand. It certainly has nothing at all to do with habitability or resources.

    That said, I liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books a lot. I don’t think they are even marginally realistic, but it’s an interesting exploration of the politics and not just the fantasy of settling a “new frontier” (though there is some of that).

  22. Nemo says

    I haven’t seen “Mars, because Earth is becoming uninhabitable” outside a handful of extremely bad science fiction stories. Most people who want to settle Mars, just want to Because It’s There.

  23. Reginald Selkirk says

    @6 Cooling down Venus will occur naturally once we jack it from its regular orbit into Earth’s orbit, 6 months apart…

  24. ORigel says

    @20 The sky wouldn’t have been heated to hundreds of degrees over the whole earth, just within 600 miles of the impact and locally from ballistic debris. The secondary impacts from the debris caused worldwide fires, though.

  25. unclefrogy says

    true but the questions and answers above are still true. I have the feeling that most of the thinking about Mars colonization is not taking in the actual planet in reality and is really just minimizing things including the radiation levels and the gravity.
    it may be doable for exploration but a Mars utopian new earth it ain’t. A cold bleak dry hell hole compared to Amazonia or the Maasai Mara

  26. silvrhalide says

    @17 Mars lacks the molten nickel-iron core of Earth, which means that the magnetosphere on Mars is largely nonexistent. It’s the mass of Earth that keeps the 1G atmosphere more or less in place (the atmosphere bleeds off a certain amount but incoming space objects do replenish to a certain degree), not the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is what keeps us all from frying to a crisp in the incoming solar radiation. Near the northern magnetic pole you can see incoming solar radiation interacting with the magnetosphere as the northern lights.

    @16 It would have to be underground colonies, unless you’ve figured out a way to solve the incoming radiation problem inherent in surface colonies. (To say nothing of all the incoming meteorites that certainly aren’t going to burn up in a Martian atmosphere they way they would in a much denser Earth atmosphere. Think Martian colony dodgeball.) Also, would have to be enclosed and pressurized because human lungs don’t work so well in a low pressure atmosphere. Think high altitude sickness, aka hypoxia. Only way more severe and all the time. Also, neither of those things will solve the demineralization of the human skeleton or the atrophying of cardiac muscle (among other things) in a low gravity environment. So Mars would likely be a one-way trip. Which is why I like #23’s idea so much. Plus the 2 year trip will probably sterilize most of the colonists or at least introduce a lot of radiation-induced damage to the gametes, possibly to the point of nonviability. I didn’t realize myself until a particle physicist friend pointed out just how much radiation you are exposed to just during Earth orbit or a moon launch. A Mars mission is 2 years plus. Mars colony not likely to be a self-sustaining one.

  27. birgerjohansson says

    Using material from phobos a far-future civilisation could create a conductive ring around Mars to generate a magnetic field.
    The atmosphere is a brute-force problem as per @ 9.

    Both are things a future supercivilization can do as a hobby once we have a non-scarcity society and have reversed the ecological damages to Earth.
    This is in the distant future, and will probably coincide with things like AI, radical human genetic modifications et cetera. So we are talking about Iain Banks’ “culture” scenario, not a goddamn Elon Musk scenario.

  28. StevoR says

    @26. Reginald Selkirk :

    @6 Cooling down Venus will occur naturally once we jack it from its regular orbit into Earth’s orbit, 6 months apart…

    If only we could switch the orbital places of Mars and Venus having Mars orbit where Venus does now and vice -versa. The smaller faster spinning Mars could heat up nicely and the larger slow spinning venus could be cooled to world like Earth. venus denser CO2 atnmosphere would trap enough heat tojkeep it nicely warm in Mars orbit I suspect whilst Mars thinner atmosphere and lower gravity wouldn’t result in a runaway Greenhouse hothouse worse than Mercury where it where Venus is. Maybe?

  29. call me mark says

    If there is life on Mars, any terraforming we attempt would almost certainly destroy it. It’s ecological vandalism on (literally) a planetary scale.

    Anyway what’s the point of getting out of Earth’s gravity-well just to drop down into that of another planet? If we’re playing sci-fi wish time, space-based habitats are the way to go.

  30. birgerjohansson says

    Call me mark @ 33.
    I have a lot of respect for galactic cosmic rays- they are rare but have enough energy to pass through ordinary shielding.
    So the best protection is to hollow out a small asteroid (a solid one, not a “rubble pile”) and put a rotating cylinder inside. Or one or several toruses. Torii?

  31. birgerjohansson says

    StevoR @ 37
    I recommend “Lucky Planet” by David Waltham. It lists all the pitfalls and dangers that stand in the way of a planet remaining hospitable to life for four billion years.
    Perhaps instead of terraforming Mars, our AI descendants should repair the biospheres of the many, many worlds that almost made it but got shafted before their Cambrian explosion. That would be easier than Mars, which probably never had a biosphere.

  32. birgerjohansson says

    To avoid Venus’ fate, it would be best if the average terrestrial world gets stuck in a permanent snowball state until our descendants turn up with orbital mirrors :-) .

  33. birgerjohansson says

    Marcus Ranum @ 36
    …And that is why we need a bomb like the one in the third Hitch-hikers novel!

  34. ORigel says

    I really doubt Venus would cool down to pleasant temperatures if it was swapped with Mars.

    Mars certainly wouldn’t suffer a runaway greenhouse effect if it was in Venus’ orbit. It doesn’t have a big reservoir of CO2, methane, or water ice. Venus only suffered a runaway greenhouse effect in its past (it is not having a runaway greenhouse effect now) because it had oceans. The water vapor escaped into space b/c the atmosphere was so hot after that– plus water molecules were being broken down by UV radiation.

  35. PaulBC says

    I’m too lazy to try to calculate the energy needed to move Venus to the same orbit as earth or Mars, but considering the mass and change in gravitational potential, it doesn’t sound like a reasonable project to undertake even with advanced planetary engineering skills. Am I wrong? Even supposing such energy available, how do you move the planet without tearing it apart in the process?

    While I don’t think building solar shades around Venus is very reasonable either, something like that might be doable with self-replicating robots. If their raw material came from a more distant orbit, such as the asteroid belt, transport energy would be less of an issue. It’s still not something I expect to be possible for centuries if not millennia, but seems less of a pure fantasy than changing the orbit.

    Just cooling off Venus is a long way from terraforming it. By the time “we” (whatever that means) are capable, I doubt it will look like a more appealing alternative to many other things we could do with the resources of the solar system. Creating new habitats for biological human beings probably won’t seem that interesting.

    Mars is accessible enough to set up very expensive research bases requiring continued maintenance from earth, and that may happen while the idea of shipping human beings around still makes sense. I would be surprised to see it happen in my lifetime, and I would much rather see at least ten times as many rovers and orbiting imagers.

  36. Doc Bill says

    I grew up in the Space Age and read science fiction from the time I could sneak into the “Adult” section of the library.

    Now, I’ve gone off totally the idea of sending biology into space. It’s ridiculous. Robots are our future. We need to get working on Sky Net.

  37. KG says


    A lot of organisms, including multicellular eukaryotes, survived the “dino-killing asteroid” (which didn’t even kill the ancestors of the feathered, flying dinosaurs I’ve been watching from my window building a nest in a nearby tree), and carried on reproducing. How many of them would be able to do that on Mars?

  38. KG says


    I’d say a scientific colony on the Moon is feasible, and I think I might even live to see it, even though I remember Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight. On Mars? I’d bet on general AI being developed before that was feasible, rendering it unnecessary.

  39. StevoR says

    Okay,brief version of this since I really must get some sleep.

    1) I think this, somewhat at least, strawmans the Elon Musk “lets go to Mars” plans.

    2) It isn’t zero-sum or either / or – we can and should both try to explore other planets including in person and also work on saving Earth too.

    3) .. and doing the former helps us with doing the latter. Remember how the Apollo 8 Earthrise picture of Earth inspired many towards environmentalism and improved our understanding of Earth’s fragility and how HST technology led to MRI machines (memory serving?) & more. Serendipity and advancing technology helps in a whole lot of unexpected areas and ways and is worth doing and attempting to colonise or eventually terraform Mars and build O’Neil stations and mine asteroids, etc .. helps here.. Its stuff we all ultimately learn from and benefit from in my view.

    Also Arthur C. Clarkes lesser known (1st?) law about old scientists saying something can’t be done almost always being wrong. There was a time when people thought travelling faster than 25 miles per hour would be fatal since that was the fastest a horse could run and that was the fastest speed possible because .., when people said hevaier than air machines flying was impossible, when people said going to the Moon was impossible, etc .. Its easy to say X cannot be done and come up with “reasons” ignoring ways those reasons might be overcome later. If someone is determined enough to make it happen, history has shown that, well, not everything but a lot of theings can happen and SpaceX in particular has proven its doubters wriong quite regularly..

    Yes, I love the old SF novels (KSR’s Masr trilogy incl) and ideas and visions and I think there is a place for having such bold visions and ideas at the same time as working on saving things on Earth too and these can be complementary rather than opposing goals and projects.

  40. StevoR says

    PS As Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer memorably wrote : Remember the money gets spent on Earth and is a tiny fraction (1/ tenth of 1% for NASA’s entire budget in the overall USA’s one?) of the money being spent / “wasted” on other stuff..

    There’s a really impressive youtube lip somewhere on that.. What if NASA had the USA military’s budget or suchlike..

  41. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @42:

    I’m too lazy to try to calculate the energy needed to move Venus to the same orbit as earth

    About 1e33 J, which is about the amount of energy the sun generates in a month.

  42. unclefrogy says

    if I look at “terraforming” any planet like we would building or modifying any site here on earth to see what the difficulties and the requirements might be I come up with these thoughts.
    first the proposed site has a very thin atmosphere low gravity and high radiation and no running water.
    If I wanted to make a farm on such a place I would need to change those conditions.
    if the low gravity and thin atmosphere are the result of low mass then you have a hole
    on earth if you want to build sometimes you have to fill which has it’s own problems.
    There is I think ample mass all ready available in this solar system and in all ready movable pieces some of which contain water some are mostly water. That could solve the mass problem OK the magnetic field strength problem is another more difficult one. We could try remelting the core some how maybe a few hundred tones of U235 &U238 in the core. Drilling on mars would not pose the same problems we would encounter here as the core in not molten the logistics how ever would be something else again
    terraforming (making it like earth) a planet like Mars is not a 6 week job it would take many years if not decades

  43. Silentbob says

    In the 60s (the sixties, man!) and early 70s Gerard O’Neill and his students studied space colonization and concluded it would be better to build gigantic artificial colonies in free space than try to live on the surface of a planet.

    O’Neill became interested in the idea of space colonization in 1969 while he was teaching freshman physics at Princeton University. His students were growing cynical about the benefits of science to humanity because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War. To give them something relevant to study, he began using examples from the Apollo program as applications of elementary physics. O’Neill posed the question during an extra seminar he gave to a few of his students: “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” His students’ research convinced him that the answer was no.

    O’Neill was inspired by the papers written by his students. He began to work out the details of a program to build self-supporting space habitats in free space. Among the details was how to provide the inhabitants of a space colony with an Earth-like environment. His students had designed giant pressurized structures, spun up to approximate Earth gravity by centrifugal force. With the population of the colony living on the inner surface of a sphere or cylinder, these structures resembled “inside-out planets”. He found that pairing counter-rotating cylinders would eliminate the need to spin them using rockets. This configuration has since been known as the O’Neill cylinder.

    (Far out, man. That cat was outta sight.)

  44. birgerjohansson says

    “It would take years if not decades”
    I assume you are being sarcastic- I always assumed millennia will be required.
    (-reads latest news about Joe Biden caving in) Considering the brilliant performance of politicians, make that “never”!

  45. unclefrogy says

    I have no idea how long it would take it would depend on how much effort we decided to exert excluding the studies on how to go about it one or two hundred years probably needed to just get the “hole ” filled to what level is decide is enough then the site work and other prep and the waiting for the surface to become habitable then “seeding” the plant and animal life hundreds of years just to get it “living” who knows how long before it becomes mature bio-diverse environment to be considered terraformed millennia maybe with a concerted effort over that length of time. It might be entertaining watching asteroids “landing” and tracking any debris as necessary
    anything else I have heard about would be little better then tents in Antarctica ok for a research outpost but not much else.
    probably never happen anyway.

  46. John Morales says

    Topic has wandered way into the weeds, so…
    PaulBC @42:

    I’m too lazy to try to calculate the energy needed to move Venus to the same orbit as earth or Mars, but considering the mass and change in gravitational potential, it doesn’t sound like a reasonable project to undertake even with advanced planetary engineering skills. Am I wrong?


    "Have you heard?
    It's in the stars
    Next July we collide with Mars"

    We’re of an age. Remember Velikovsky?

    (Carbohydrates, hydrocarbons… same thing, right?)

  47. says

    A lot of organisms, including multicellular eukaryotes, survived the “dino-killing asteroid” (which didn’t even kill the ancestors of the feathered, flying dinosaurs I’ve been watching from my window building a nest in a nearby tree)…

    They’re not real, remember? /s