A Change of Atmosphere

20 October 2022

A Change of Atmosphere

Moxie on Mars.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Research published last month in the journal Science Advances revealed that an experimental device on Nasa’s rover ‘Perseverance’ has been successfully producing oxygen from the atmosphere on the planet Mars since the mission landed there almost two years ago. The atmosphere on Mars is largely carbon-dioxide; the device, known as Moxie (the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment), sucks in C02 and heats it to 800C to separate the carbon and the oxygen. The carbon is dumped in the form of carbon monoxide and the remaining oxygen is pure enough to be breathable by human beings.

That’s good news for any human being who might actually make it to Mars. But has anyone considered what effect this might be having on the planet’s inhabitants? (After all, part of Perseverance’s mission is to see if there is or has been or might ever be life on Mars. And something must be producing the variable amounts of methane also detected in the planet’s atmosphere…)

Emergency Signal 1: Help! This is planet S4 (fourth planet from the Sun) calling the other seven planets in our Solar System. Our atmosphere is mysteriously collapsing. Its destruction threatens our lives and our planet’s entire ecosystem. The CO2 which we breathe is disappearing; it’s being replaced by poisonous oxygen and unbreathable CO. The cause of this disaster is as yet unknown but our investigations have confirmed that it began less than one year ago. If anyone out there knows how we might combat this terrifying menace, please help us!

Emergency Signal 2: Help! This is planet S4 calling planet S3. Or, in your own words, planet Mars calling planet Earth. Our inter-planetary probes tell us that your planet is facing the same problem as ours – the destruction of its atmosphere and, potentially, the consequential collapse of its entire ecosystem. So we’re contacting you in the desperate hope that you might be able to help us. The degradation of our atmosphere began only recently – almost two of your years ago – but yours has been deteriorating for at least one of your centuries. So you will be more advanced in the battle to save your planet than we are. Therefore we beg you to help us; we need the knowledge, the experience and the solutions which a century of tackling this problem must have taught you! Please help us to save our planet!

Emergency Signal 3: This is planet S4 calling planet S3. You bastards! Not only have you failed to respond to our previous two emergency signals, Earthlings, but our investigations have just discovered that the whole disaster is your fault in the first place! One of your machines – dumped on our planet without as much as a by-your-leave – is slowly destroying our atmosphere and poisoning us! And it doesn’t even have an ‘off’ switch! How irresponsible is that! How selfish is that! You poison your own atmosphere and so you move on to another planet and start poisoning the atmosphere there in a vain and pathetic attempt to save yourselves, without a thought for anything or anyone who might be living there already! We might have guessed, from what is happening on your own planet, that this problem has “Made on Earth” written all over it!

Emergency Signal 4: Help! This is planet S4 calling all the other planets in our solar system (except planet S3 – we’re not talking to you) and beyond.  The continuing destruction of our atmosphere and the ecological devastation resulting from it is forcing us to seek a new home before it’s too late. We’re looking for an uninhabited planet which can support life for us; this new Mars must have a carbon-rich atmosphere (ie at least 96% CO2), extremes of climate (a variation of at least 150C between hottest and coldest), dry soil with reduced fertility, in other words a desert with little or no water. Ideally, it would be swept by violent dust storms of more than 100mph. If you are aware of such a planet please let us know asap.

Reply to emergency signal 4: Greetings, planet S4, this is planet Proxima Centauri b in the Alpha Centauri solar system.  We’ve identified a planet which meets or will soon meet your requirements. Coincidentally, it’s in your own solar system – your next door neighbour, in fact. For some time we’ve been aware that the activities of the inhabitants this planet – which they call Earth – are rendering it unhabitable for themselves. We’ve calculated that in less than a century of their time – perhaps in as little as fifty of their years – they will have created a planet-wide environment exactly matching the one you require as described in your Emergency Signal 4. And of course the planet will be uninhabited as it will no longer be able to support its indigenous life.

Emergency Signal 5: Greetings, Proxima Centauri b, from planet S4. Many thanks! Fifty or one hundred Earth years, you say? Yes, we’ll be ready to move home by then. Goodbye, Earthlings! Hello, Earth, we’re on our way!

Cover page image: Kevin Gill / flickr.com / Creative Commons

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