Some scientists think they can make Mars into a livable planet again by tinkering with its atmosphere. “Terraforming has long been a fictional topic,” says NASA’s Michael Meyer. “Now, with real scientists exploring the reality, we can ask what are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars.” But they’ll have to watch out for the electrified dust devils.

6903,1179587,00.html,Robin McKie writes in The Observer that researchers who want to terraform Mars point to the fact that traces of methane have been found in the Martian atmosphere. This is a result of decaying life forms, meaning Mars was once hospitable to life and could be again.

In order to terraform Mars, engineers would have to find a way to thicken its atmosphere and heat up its surface. While we’re trying to get rid of excess greenhouse gases here on Earth, the way to warm up Mars is to produce them. One idea is to put a large mirror into orbit above Mars, which would focus the Sun’s rays onto its polar icecap. The ice would melt and release carbon dioxide, which would trap the Sun’s heat and warm up the planet. Adding CO2 to atmosphere would also thicken it and protect the surface from ultra-violet radiation from space that would kill off any life there.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. Astronomer Monica Grady says, “We now know Mars used to have an atmosphere, but it disappeared for reasons that are still unclear. If we restore Mars’s atmosphere, we could easily find it disappeared again. We would have done some devastating things to the planet for a temporary effect. That is certainly not ethical.”

NASA’s Lisa Pratt says, “It is very depressing. Before we have even discovered if there is life on Mars?which I am increasingly confident we will find?we are talking about undertaking massive projects that would wipe out all these indigenous life forms, all the strange microbes that we hope to find buried in the Martian soil. It is simply ethically wrong.

“If we find life on Mars, the philosophical implications will be profound. If it is unlike Earthly life and has a different genetic code, this will show that living beings evolved separately on two neighboring worlds. Life is therefore likely to be ubiquitous throughout the galaxy. If it has the same genetic code, however, it will indicate that one planet must have contaminated the other – probably by rocks being blasted across the solar system following meteorite impacts. We may really be Martian in origin. Given the importance of these issues, we simply cannot risk starting a global experiment that would wipe out the precious sensitive evidence we are seeking.”

Robert Roy Britt writes in that there are whirling dust devils on Mars that generate high-voltage electric fields. Future Mars explorers will have to learn how to avoid them.

The same thing happens to dust devils here on Earth. In Arizona and Nevada, where there are plenty of them, researchers drove so fast they raced right through dust devils so they could measure their voltage. They found the devils had huge electric fields of over 4,000 volts.

Dust devils are miniature tornadoes that can be started by a gentle breeze. They can grow as large as a football field and have winds up to 60 mph. On Mars, dust devils can be five times wider and soar 5 miles high, higher than tornadoes on Earth.

Before the tests, scientists didn?t realize that dust devils were electrically charged. They knew they become electrified when particles in the dust rub against one another, producing static electricity, but they thought the positive and negative particles cancelled each other out. Instead, the smaller particles tend to gain a negative charge and the wind carries them higher, leaving the positive particles close to the ground. This separation turns the dust devil into a giant battery.

NASA’s William Farrell says, “If Martian dust devils are highly electrified, as our research suggests, they might give rise to increased discharging or arcing in the low-pressure Martian atmosphere, increased dust adhesion to space suits and equipment, and interference with radio communications.”

While we’re learning more about Mars, we may forget that there are many unsolved mysteries right here on Earth?and there are brave people who are investigating them.

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