Mars once had a temperate atmosphere and surface water, but it has now turned into a cold desert world with a thin atmosphere. Liquid water no longer exists on the planet’s surface. The Red Planet turned cold and arid due to the death of its magnetic field about 4.2 billion years ago. In the absence of the magnetic field, solar winds stripped the planet of its atmosphere over time. Now NASA scientists have proposed a magnetic field to protect the planet’s atmosphere and make it habitable.

NASA Mars Magnetic Field
Image Credit: Jim Green / NASA / USRA (screenshot)

Will NASA go ahead and place the magnetic shield at L1?

Scientists at NASA believe that a powerful-enough magnetic field into space could make up for Mars’ lost magnetosphere. During the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop in Washington, DC, NASA scientist Jim Green proposed the idea of launching a magnetic shield to a stable orbit between Mars and the sun to protect the Red Planet from high-energy solar particles.

The proposed magnetic shield would sit between Mars and Sun at the L1 Lagrange Point. It would create an artificial magnetotail trailing behind the protective shield. It would help the planet slowly restore its atmosphere. Jim Green said the magnetic shield would eliminate most of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the Martian ionosphere and upper atmosphere, allowing the atmosphere to grow in temperature and pressure over time.

The shield could help restore Martian atmosphere

The shield would consist of a giant dipole powerful-enough to generate an artificial magnetic field. Computer simulations showed that the artificial shield would allow Mars to achieve about half the atmospheric pressure of Earth within years. The atmosphere would become thick enough for the frozen carbon dioxide at the northern pole of the planet to start melting.

The subsequent greenhouse gas effect would melt the vast stores of water ice, restoring some of the planet’s oceans. Jim Green estimates that one-seventh of Mars’ ancient ocean could be restored. It’s not an impossible task considering there is already research going on into structures that would create a magnetosphere. However, it could take decades before the atmosphere would be thick enough to make it habitable for humans.

Who is going to colonize Mars first?

NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government are in race to set up human colonies on Mars. Last month, the UAE launched its Mars 2117 initiative to create a “mini-city” on the Red Planet by 2117. It would require cooperation from multiple countries. SpaceX aims to launch its crewed mission to Mars by 2024. Elon Musk estimates that it would currently cost $10 billion per seat to send people to the Red Planet. Musk’s proposed Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) could bring down the cost to just $200,000 or lower.