National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists have proposed a bold plan that could protect Mars’ atmosphere and make the Red Planet habitable for future generations of human colonists.
Speaking at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop at the Nasa ce Vision 2050 Workshop at the Nasa headquarters in Washington, Nasa’s Planetary Science Division Director James Green presented the extraordinary idea of putting a magnetic shield around Mars to restore its atmosphere, and terraform the Martian environment so that liquid water flows on the surface once again, which eventually could make it habitable.
The workshop was aimed at discussing ambitious space projects that could be implemented or at least started by 2050. Speakers included a range of experts on space technology, who set out their vision for what planetary science may look like in the future.
About 4.2 billion years ago, the magnetic field of Mars suddenly disappeared, which caused the red planet’s atmosphere to slowly be lost to space. Mars may seem like a cold, arid wasteland these days, but the Red Planet is thought to have once had a thick atmosphere that could have maintained deep oceans filled with liquid water, and a warmer, potentially habitable climate.
“This situation then eliminates many of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the planet’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere, allowing the Martian atmosphere to grow in pressure and temperature over time,” the scientists wrote in an accompanying paper.
Green said that launching a magnetic shield to a stable orbit between Mars and the sun could shield the planet from high-energy solar particles. The shield will have a large dipole, which is closed electric circuit that can generate an artificial magnetic field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla. “If this can be achieved in a lifetime, the colonization of Mars will not be far away,” he said.
The shield would protect the planet from solar winds and the greenhouse effect would start to heat the planet and eventually melt the ice under its poles.
In the team’s simulations, if the solar wind were counteracted by the magnetic shield, Mars’s atmospheric losses would stop, and the atmosphere would regain as much as half the atmospheric pressure of Earth in a matter of years.
The positioning of the magnetic shield would ensure that the two regions where most of Mars’ atmosphere is lost would be shielded.
NASA hopes to mount the future crewed mission by 2030. The team acknowledges that the plan is largely hypothetical at this point, but it’s a pretty amazing vision for what might be possible in the years ahead.
To test this idea, the researcher team conducted a series of simulations using their proposed artificial magnetosphere. These were run at the Coordinated Community Modelling Centre (CCMC), which specializes in space weather research, to see what the net effect would be. What the researchers found was that a dipole field positioned at Mars L1 Lagrange Point would be able to counteract solar wind, such that Mars’ atmosphere would achieve a new balance. As a result, the atmosphere of Mars would naturally thicken over time, which can lead to many new possibilities for human exploration and colonization, they said.