When Charles Darwin saw the barren volcanic wasteland left behind on Ascension island, what most saw as a terrible waste, he saw as an opportunity. And now many are now wondering whether a similar idea could be transplanted into the field of terraforming. What if the distant and barren red planet Mars was actually a thriving green planet filled with life?
Martian colonization has always been a dream of scientists and astronomers for years. The idea of starting fresh on another world and expanding into it with all the potential new cultures and developments to come with it is incredibly tempting not only to futurists, but to those wishing for a chance to adventure and discover something new. But the hostile conditions have always served as a road block to those wishing to live on the surface of the red planet. But the work of Charles Darwin, acclaimed father of evolution may actually give us insight into a better way of terraforming Mars. Though the theory is not new, it certainly offers us insight into how life could be transplanted from one island to another virtually barren of life.
An article in the BBC by Howard Falcon Lang recently reminded us of an experiment Darwin performed with his friend Joseph Hooker. The island of Ascension was volcanically active, with essentially a clean slate on it. As Hooker and Darwin spearheaded an experiment to transplant trees to the island, they observed what would survive and what would not. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest soon proved to be applicable as the trees collected moisture from the air and eventually the island became a thriving forest complete with sustainable and reproducing life. They had performed the impossible.
So how could such a system look if it were interplanetary rather than on an island already bearing many of the essential components necessary for life? For one thing, Earth scientists now have the advantage of genetic engineering. Plants engineered to be able to survive and convert the harsh terrain of Mars may be planted there in small colonies and nurtured for years until one may be discovered that can live on the harsh surface. But once that single form of life is released onto the Martian surface, if it were to thrive and multiply, it could be the cornerstone for other creatures to live on the planet as well.
For example, if even a small extremophile form of bacteria were released that could enrich soil and gain energy from photosynthesis, it could spread across the planet’s surface in conditions thought to be impossible to survive. This extremophile may evolve naturally through the course of evolution into ever increasingly complex life forms or it could simply exist on the planet’s surface until it could be joined by others. Simple plants that create oxygen and draw moisture to the surface could eventually be replaced by others while they died from the changing conditions they caused.
These life forms could gradually be replaced by another species as condition’s on the planet’s surface again became one step closer to hospitable for humans, and so on. The eventual line of organisms could be comparable to something seen on Earth and finally then humans could make the journey to seed the planet.
Is it possible Darwin’s secret could be the one we’ve been waiting for?