'Glad You Asked': New Web Series Tackles Mars Terraforming (Exclusive Clip)

Artist's illustration showing the terraforming of Mars to a world not unlike ours.
Artist's illustration showing the terraforming of Mars to a world not unlike ours. (Image credit: Daein Ballard, CC BY-SA)

At the beginning of a new Vox YouTube episode discussing Mars terraforming, host Cleo Abram cheerfully describes how her team just got stuck in the name of science.

Abram and a group of others were traveling through one of the most Mars-like places on Earth, to better understand how humanity might get a foothold on the Red Planet. But their vehicle gets mired in the muddy sand, and you'll have to watch the episode to see where they are and how they get out.

Abram is one of four hosts for Vox's upcoming YouTube original series, "Glad You Asked," whose first episode explains how to make the Red Planet more habitable. The series covers questions such as why humans cry and what happens after we die. Episodes 1 through 5 (including the Mars episode) will debut weekly starting Tuesday (Oct. 8), and episodes 6 through 10 will debut weekly starting Jan. 8, both on the Vox YouTube channel and YouTube Learning.

Related: Make Mars Livable with Asteroids: A Terraforming Plan

In a trailer, Abram explains that leading thinkers such as The Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and The Mars Society founder and president Robert Zubrin are among those who believe we can make Mars more like Earth.

The process is called terraforming, which means transforming a planet into something that can support life as we know it — more explicitly, the carbon-based life that Earth is known for. It won't be easy. Humanity must address issues with ethics (What about possible Mars microbes living on the planet?), technology (How do we make this possible?) and finance (Can we afford it?) before we can pursue terraforming. 

But terraforming is a common trope in science fiction, and Abram says proponents believe we can do it for real by following three steps. 

The first step is to create a magnetosphere around Mars. Long ago, the Red Planet lost its global magnetic field, which protected it from the solar wind, the stream of charged particles flowing from the sun. As a result, Mars' atmosphere was stripped away, and the planet became much colder and drier than it had been.

Luckily, the same didn't happen on our own planet. "Every day we should all thank the huge magnetic field that surrounds Earth," Abram says in the episode. 

Vox's new YouTube Original series, "Glad You Asked," premieres on Oct. 8, 2019.

Vox's new YouTube Original series, "Glad You Asked," premieres on Oct. 8, 2019. (Image credit: Vox/YouTube Originals)

One way to create an artificial magnetic field involves putting a satellite into Mars orbit. While Abram doesn't discuss the details in the episode's trailer, she says the idea comes from NASA. In a 2017 meeting, Jim Green — who at the time was director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division and is now the agency's chief scientist — suggested an artificial magnetic field could be generated through a large dipole. You can read the details via NASA's Astrobiology Magazine.

Step 2 of terraforming Mars would be thickening the atmosphere through the addition of carbon dioxide, which would trap infrared light and raise the temperature of the planet. (We're already doing this on Earth, where industry and consumer emissions are causing global warming.) But experts disagree on how to do this, Abram said. Musk has suggested dropping nuclear weapons just above the polar ice caps of Mars, which would explode and release trapped carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. Others have said that we need even more carbon dioxide than what is naturally available. For example, Zubrin suggests building factories on the Red Planet to release more of the gas.

Step 3 would be releasing bacteria to absorb some of the nutrients on Mars and release oxygen into the atmosphere, the way oxygen built up in Earth's atmosphere billions of years ago. But this step will take a long time. Abram suggests it would be a few hundred to a few thousand years before the microbes can do enough work to make the planet habitable.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly said that the terraforming episode is the fourth in the series. It's actually the first, and premieres Oct. 8.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace