Sunday, October 21, 2012

Atmospherically Speaking

Today I have another Ask Tsana post.

Brookelin asked:
Hi again, Tsana.

I was wondering - in an alternate universe, what would it take for a species to survive on Mars?

I know that it has some atmosphere, but not a whole lot. With the pressure being below the Armstrong limit, could there feasibly be large creatures (between collie and bear size) that could survive would have higher thresholds and what would they need to do so?

If the water on a human's tongue boils in space, would an alien creature in these environments be able to have eyes and mouths?

What might these species' need to overcome the intense radiation caused by Mars' weak magnetosphere?

Could bio-genetically enhanced humans ever survive these conditions outside a space suit for periods of time upwards of an hour, but less than a day?

Are these too many questions? Do you know the answers to any of them, or is this more of a medical thing?
I don't have answers to all of these questions because, as Brookelin said, some are more medical/biological and that's not my area of expertise. I will say that what we generally know a lot about is life on Earth. There are some constraints that exist for life on other planets but there is nothing to say that it has to resemble Earth life. They could have eating and seeing organs completely different to what we're used to. Even on Earth there's a pretty wide variety. I'm not sure that merely genetically enhancing a human would be enough to let them walk around on Mars. Science fictions stories have gone there, but I'm not sure genetics is up to it. I could be wrong, I'm just guessing. Hopefully my comments below on atmospheres and life on smaller planets such as Mars will answer the rest of the questions, though.

Mars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team
It's true that Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it's about 0.6% as dense as Earth's at their respective surfaces. Part of the reason for this is Mars's lower gravity. In general, gases will expand to evenly fill the container they're in. When the container is a planet's gravitational field, we get denser air closer to the ground and less dense air higher up. This is because the air higher up is pushing down on the lower air while having less air above it to push it down. More or less.

Air is made up of particles (atoms and molecules) which move around very quickly and bounce off each other. That's why a gas is a gas and not a liquid or solid: the particles in a liquid don't move quickly enough to completely overcome the forces attracting them to each other and the particles in a solid can't move more than vibrating on the spot because the forces holding them in place are so strong. The energy that makes the particles move, for all states of matter, depends on the temperature: the hotter, the faster. The other important consideration is particle mass. At the same temperature, oxygen and hydrogen molecules (O2 and H2) have the same energy. However, oxygen weighs sixteen times as much as hydrogen (because the atoms are larger and heavier) so it takes more energy to move oxygen molecules at the same speed as hydrogen molecules. The result is that at the same temperature, oxygen molecules move more slowly than hydrogen molecules. And it takes less energy for hydrogen molecules to reach escape velocity (the speed required to escape the gravitational pull of Earth/whatever planet) than oxygen. And that's why there is very little hydrogen in Earth's atmosphere despite it being the most abundant element on a cosmic scale — it escapes into space. It's also the reason only the gas giants, notably Jupiter and Saturn, have any significant about of hydrogen in their atmospheres — they have the strongest gravitational fields.

So, Mars. Mars is smaller than Earth, with about a third the acceleration due to gravity at its surface. Mars is made up of similar elements to Earth, most likely because they formed so closely together, so it's likely that the same sort of lighter elements could have made up Mars's atmosphere. However, due to the lower gravity, not only hydrogen but oxygen and nitrogen would also have escaped or never been captured by the planet. I would guess the main reason there's so much frozen carbon dioxide at the poles is because it has a relatively high melting point of -78ºC rather than the much colder melting points of oxygen (-219º C) and nitrogen (-210º C). For comparison, Mars's surface temperatures vary between -143º and +35º C. So basically, even if you imported or mined enough gas to raise the air pressure to human survivable levels, it would all be lost into space and would need constant replenishing which would get tedious and be difficult to sustain. You'd also, ideally, raise the surface temperature to more consistently human survivable levels — probably using some sort of greenhouse effect to trap more of the sun's energy — but that would just hasten the atmosphere's escape.

Titan's atmosphere as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA
But all is not lost. Heavier molecules exist, particularly those made out of carbon. Titan, one of Saturn's moons, is smaller than Mars but has an atmospheric pressure greater than Earth's by about 45%. It's colder than Mars, which allows its atmosphere to condense a bit, but it's only got a surface gravity of around a seventh that of Earth's (less than half of Mars's). According to Wiki, its atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen (as is Earth's) and methane with some traces of heavier carbon molecules. It's a combination of the temperature, the distance from the sun, Saturn's magnetic field and some form of replenishing methane that keeps Titan's atmosphere thick and, well, full of methane. Distance from the sun is significant by itself because Titan is far enough that the ionising solar wind is weak enough to not completely ionise and destroy the top layers of its atmosphere. The same strategy probably wouldn't work on Mars to increase the atmospheric pressure permanently unless you could find some magically resistant to solar radiation molecule to populate the atmosphere with. There are two interesting theories for what keeps replenishing the methane on Titan (which should be destroyed even by the lowered energy it receives from the sun): cryovolcanoes — volcanoes shooting icy hydrocarbons instead of lava — or biological processes using/generating methane in place of water.

The high levels of ionising radiation on Mars are as much due to its lack of atmosphere as its lack of magnetic field. (Side note: there's evidence that there was a magnetic field on Mars in the past, though I don't think we know why it went away.) Earth's atmosphere absorbs a lot of the ionising and UV radiation the sun throws at us (part of the reason the ozone layer is important). Not all of it is deflected — and things like X-rays and gamma rays can't be deflected because they don't have an electric charge — especially near the magnetic poles where the aurorae are caused by charged particles, mostly from the sun, interacting with the atmosphere. However, giving Mars a magnetic field would definitely help. Earth's is generated by molten iron in its core so it's not outside the realm of over-dramatic science fiction to drill a hole into the centre and start the core spinning. Come to think of it, Hollywood's already done that, just with Earth not Mars. (For the record, the ridiculous issues with that movie include the structural integrity of the hole and the failure to correctly represent changes in gravity.) A more feasible way to avoid radiation on Mars would be to live underground so that the ground above you did the work of absorbing harmful radiation. The reason too much radiation is bad for all forms of life is that it destroys and changes molecules. In humans this is one of the causes of cancer. In microbial life, which might only have a few cells to begin with, it's more deadly. It's why sterilising things with UV light works.

So basically, the easiest way to get people living and wandering around on Mars is to have them live in airtight structures and give them suits for walking around outside it. The suits wouldn't have to be as extreme as space suits though, so that's something. I'm not saying it's completely impossible to walk around on the surface with less protection, just very difficult. And because someone will mention it in the comments if I don't, I've heard that Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, starting with Red Mars, do a good job of talking about the terraforming process, although I haven't read them. Ben Bova's Grand Tour of the solar system books (eg Mars or Saturn and Titan) explore alternative forms of life all over the solar system. If you can stomach a bit of sexism, some of them are worth a read.

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