I see so many discussions about how the main roadblock to terraforming Mars is its lack of a magnetic field. If Mars had an atmosphere as thick as Earth's but no magnetic field, wouldn't it still take geological time scales for the solar wind to strip away the Martian atmosphere? How many years would we be able to live on Mars before we had to replenish it? And would this thick of an atmosphere sufficiently protect people on the surface from radiation?

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    $\begingroup$ +1 I think there has been an answer or two here that touches on some of this, but not quantitatively and comprehensively. It would be great to have all of is put together nicely in one place! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 8 '17 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ The atmosphere must be scaled to provide livable pressure. We can't grow it arbitrarily thick just to stop the radiation. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jun 8 '17 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @SF.: There's a pretty wide range of livable pressures depending on oxygen percentages and other gasses: normal air can be breathed up to a couple of bars without toxicity, a low-oxygen+nitrogen mixture will take you up to almost ten bars, and so forth. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy Jun 8 '17 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ See this answer on Quora. $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Jun 9 '17 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't the need for a magnetic field more about radiation protection than atmosphere retention? $\endgroup$ – Mike Harris Aug 14 '17 at 12:17

Mars does not have the ability to hold an atmosphere breathable for humans, not because of lack of a magnetic field and the solar wind, but because of the lack of mass and the average kinetic energy (and therefore velocity) of for example oxygen, or water vapor. This happens on much faster than geological scales.


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off topic, but I believe venus would be a better option, its thick atmosphere would would allow for floating colonies that could avoid much of the heat on the surface. Everything plants need to grow can be mined from the atmosphere, and resistant cyanobacteria could prove useful in lowering the surface temperature, and mining of the acidic salts to get hydrogen for even more water.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this is true (see my discussion here). For a society capable of planetary terraforming, the atmosphere need only last for a short time, maybe a hundred or thousand years, since it could be repeated or replenished as necessary. While your plot is attractive and colorful, it does't address short time scales, and in fact contains no time information at all. Also, it's best to include a citation or link to the source of images that you use, to help credit those who made the image. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 11 '18 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ ircamera.as.arizona.edu/astr_250/Lectures/Lec_05sml.htm is the original image, at any one time roughly 10-15% of any water vapor would be at escape velocity according to the Maxwell-Boltzmann velocity distribution. $\endgroup$ – Famous Jameis Jun 12 '18 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ It looks like some words may be missing before "off topic,..." $\endgroup$ – Wayne Conrad Jun 12 '18 at 1:49

Mars has no magnetic field to protect any atmosphere we might add to the planet, but fortunately it would be lost very slowly, over geological time. Fortunately, both protecting and creating a Martian atmosphere can be achieved by parking one giant powerful space station at the Lagrange 1 point which would broadcast a magnetic field which would protect the Martian atmosphere. Surprisingly, there is a little volcanic activity on Mar which releases enough gas to eventually generate a runaway greenhouse effect which would give Mars about a third Earth's atmosphere. https://phys.org/news/2017-03-nasa-magnetic-shield-mars-atmosphere.html

But we can speed that up. Zubrin says a city of a million people would have the economy to manufacture super-greenhouse gases 17,000 times more powerful than CO2. In just 100 years a city of 1 million people would get the following:-

  1. The Martian CO2 poles warm and melt.
  2. Mars would then have a CO2 atmosphere about a third the pressure of sea-level air here on Earth. That gives us radiation protection from the sun and cosmic rays.
  3. It protects all colony domes across the whole of Mars from tinier micrometeorites which would just burn up in the atmosphere. They're just not an issue ever again! (There would of course be a minimum size at which they did still bust through that 0.3 bar atmosphere, and domes would still require urgent repair mechanisms).
  4. The atmosphere would make every dome on the planet easier to build because it would be less prone to explosive decompression, increasing the size and viability of some of the valley-covering dome habitats.
  5. It lets us walk on Mars in plain clothes (with an oxygen breather mask of course), meaning you could cycle a bike long distances out in the open with a light breather pack and mask, repair your domes easier, mine resources, and basically live on the surface of an alien world far, far easier.
  6. It melts water ice, creating oceans and a rain cycle, which will eventually wash out the perchlorates in the regolith.
  7. This in turn allows plants and trees and farming on the surface and plankton in the oceans. All that about 100 years after the million-strong colony starts releasing super-greenhouse gases. Why move nitrogen from other planets if Mars has enough that 'just' needs baking out of its rocks? Green Mars doesn't immediately require a breathable atmosphere, but a giant space lense could focus sunlight down on the Martian surface concentrated to one point to melt rock and free volatiles.https://www.universetoday.com/9730/zubrin-on-terraforming-mars/
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    $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question Is a magnetic field really needed to terraform Mars? or the subsequent questions about the lifetime of the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Aug 18 '17 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ Which part of the phys.org article I linked to doesn't answer the question? phys.org/news/2017-03-nasa-magnetic-shield-mars-atmosphere.html $\endgroup$ – Max Green Eclipse Aug 20 '17 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ I think it's a valid answer because it elaborates on the argument that it is not necessary to hold an atmosphere over geological timescales. $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Jun 12 '18 at 4:17

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