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The Mars Society of Canada

In this country, we use metric.
"Bringing Mars to Life"
Lecture by NASA scientist Chris McKay a Success!

2 April 1999

The first public lecture presented by the Toronto Chapter of the Mars Society was a complete success, drawing together about 150 people, school children to seniors, coming from as far away as Hamilton and Kingston. The presentation, a talk entitled "Bringing Mars to Life" by Dr. Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center, was a ninety minute tour through the past, present, and possible futures of the Red Planet. He presented the general concept of the terraformation of Mars, making the planet hospitable to Earth life, using current technology. A Mars transformed as such will require a thicker atmosphere, a much higher mean temperature, and liquid water on the surface.

McKay is an exobiologist and field scientist investigating Martian geology for clues to ancient climatic conditions, and studying atmospheric features of Saturn’s moon Titan. His field expeditions in the Arctic, Antarctic, Siberian tundra and deserts such as the Gobi in China and the Atacama in Chile, concern understanding life in the extreme environments to expands knowledge of what is possible on other worlds. McKay also serves on the Steering Committee of the Mars Society.

Today’s Mars is a cold planet, with a very thin atmosphere. Liquid water cannot exist on the surface because of the low atmospheric pressure. According to McKay, it is very unlikely that life is present on Mars today as the radiation from the decay of radioactive materials over billions of years would have destroyed even the most resilient forms of dormant life. While this leaves Mars as a barren, dead world today, this was not always the case -- many features on the Martian surface indicate the flow of large amounts of water in the past.

McKay strongly believes in the intrinsic value of life, that "if it is life, it is worth preserving". This also means that life should be spread to other parts of the Solar System, and more specifically Mars - the only other planet in the Solar System where, with today’s technology, the climate can be altered sufficiently to allow Earth life to survive.


The term "terraforming" is widely used to describe efforts towards the introduction of higher organisms requiring an oxygen-rich atmosphere for survival on other planets. This concept, first introduced to describe the transformation of a planet so that it could support human life, is being refined to comprise of progressive phases, the first of which is called "ecopoiesis" and sets the stage for any type of life to develop and be sustained.

McKay pointed out that the concern of damaging the planet is unfounded. On Earth, an ecosystem is already present and any human change will inevitably be harmful to a set of organisms. Mars, however, is a dead planet, and any change that will introduce life will be positive. McKay believes that Mars should be left alone after the initial steps of raising the temperature, thickening the atmosphere, and introducing life. From then on, any outcome would provide large amounts of information about the requirements of life and its process of evolution. The terraformation of Mars will also be very important in understanding global warming. To warm up Mars, greenhouse gases are needed. These are the same kinds of gases that are currently raising the temperatures on Earth. The process chosen to terraform Mars will depend on whether life is present on Mars. Even though it is quite unlikely that life is present, this possibility cannot be ruled out. However, it should be fairly easy to test the places where life is most likely to have evolved, namely the sediments in ancient riverbeds, underground water reservoirs, and the polar caps. If life is present on Mars, it is probably not highly developed and is likely barely surviving. In the case that life exists, McKay believes that the planet should still be warmed up and then quarantined, to allow native Martian life to evolve.

Based in Boulder, CO, the Mars Society is a globe-spanning organization committed to promoting cost-effective explorations of the Red Planet using privately and governmentally funded missions and subsequent settlement of the planet. The Toronto Chapter is newly formed and growing in membership. Dedicated to bringing Mars closer to home, this Chapter is involved with local outreach and education programs, and the Mars Arctic Research Station (MARS) project. The MARS base is to be constructed within the Haughton Crater on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic and will serve as a testbed for procedures and equipment for future missions to Mars.

Toronto Chapter meetings are open to the public. The next meeting will be held at 7:30 pm on April 15 at 22 Russell St., room 2093, located on the University of Toronto downtown campus (Department of Geology building). The agenda for this meeting can be found at Chapters.MarsSociety.org/Toronto/. More information can be obtained by contacting Rocky.

Rocky Persaud (Rocky.Persaud@UToronto.CA)
Margarita Marinova (mmm@MIT.edu)
Adrienne Chee-Hing
Mars Society, Toronto Chapter



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