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ID: 3638


June 6, 2008, 10:22 am

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"...a process of planetary engineering, specifically directed at enhancing the capacity of an extra-terrestrial planetary environment to support life. The ultimate in terraforming would be to create an uncontained planetary biosphere emulating all the functions of the biosphere of the Earth, one that would be fully habitable for human beings."

Living in space should be an amazing challenge, but however practical and (relatively) easy to create will be spaceships and habitats, there is nothing above a genuine planet to live on. Besides, it’s much safer during those galactic wars than fragile space bases, where a single hit can leave you grasping for air… or maybe not, considering planets cannot escape. But I digress.

If we ever rise into space, and find planets close enough to ours, then, no doubt, our kind will seek to change them to our own image, and make them habitable.

This is a collection of ideas around the concept of terraforming. Which of them are likely to be used will depend on the level of technology, and too many other factors.


Considered aspects:

Other topics:


Additional thoughts are welcome. Please try to keep the format (major themes as scroll comments, lesser topics as replies).

And sorry for the broken outside links. :|

Additional Ideas (10)

Note to stability:

Whenever the requirement of stability is mentioned, you should also consider the proper timescale, as compared to the human lifespan. Geological and astronomical phenomena can take LONG. If a planet becomes uninhabitable after ten thousands years, it is perfectly fine for settling down now! Even centuries may be okay.

2007-05-25 07:55 PM » Link: [3638#27537|text]
Orbit and rotation

Changing the kinetic properties of a planet is not an easy task, though more a question of raw power than of intricate knowledge. A typical method would be bombarding it with directed comets and asteroids, giving it little pushes at the right moments (and handily depositing organic substances, incidentally heating up the atmosphere a little).

But this is not only a matter of how long you prefer your day, or year to be! Distant planets receive less sunlight, closer ones more; a too distorted elliptic orbit may cause extreme shifts in temperatures over the year, and require intervention. Day and night mean variations as well, so they need to be balanced similarly.

2007-05-25 07:57 PM » Link: [3638#27538|text]
Option: it can be imagined a distant planet could always turn only one side to its sun, enjoying warmth sufficient to support life, while the other would freeze. (However, large temperature differences could make for quite intense weather patterns...)

2007-05-25 07:57 PM » Link: [3638#27539|text]
Option: remember Pitch Black? A constellation of planets and suns has caused a rather long eclipse... that was bad news with local ravenous lifeforms that happened to dislike light.

Checking rare constellations is not always astrology.

2007-05-25 08:00 PM » Link: [3638#27540|text]
Option 3: Gas Giants can be converted into enormous, traditional, rockets. The sheer gravity of them can then be used to realign an entire solar system. This is hard.

2007-05-26 06:15 PM » Link: [3638#27566|text]

For planet-based life, an atmosphere is a most handy place to deposit the waste, and find basic nourishment. As everything diffuses in it fast, basically any lifeform from the surface can be expected to interact with the atmosphere to some degree. It is therefore of key importance to have this part covered.

Small planets may have none to speak of, so a weak adaptation would be to make an atmosphere that is sufficient to allow people to carry masks instead of vacuum suit. A breathable air, though, is something different. If lacking the gravity to hold its air, some parts or all parts may over time "evaporate" into space. Especially hydrogen is susceptible here, this is suspected to what happened to Mars - water would decompose in the upper layers of atmosphere, the hydrogen leaving, oxygen staying to be eventually bound to other chemicals.

Still, small planets may be designed with this risk taken into account, renewing the composition of gases regularly. (Consider stability.)

2007-05-25 08:02 PM » Link: [3638#27541|text]
For an Earth-like world, the key components would be oxygen and nitrogen with trace amounts of other gases, which may differ wildly from the original. Especially inert gases shouldn't pose no danger.

- as a flavour element, a different atmosphere may indeed taste differently. It may also have a different color (that depends on the sun(s) as well).

- even little differences count sometimes; imagine diseases spreading well on some worlds while little on others; or aliens attacking a given human-colonized planet for no apparent reason, as they happen to like a certain type of air.

2007-05-26 12:06 PM » Link: [3638#27558|text]
Some key points concerning atmospheric suitability for human life:

The ability of human lungs to extract oxygen from the air is dependent on a concept called 'partial pressure'. Partial pressure is the amount of total pressure dependent on one given component of the atmosphere. Humans require about 3 pounds per square inch of oxygen, and an atmosphere of less than 0.02 psi Carbon dioxide. The balance can be composed of nearly any substantially inert gas. Explorers and terraformers must display some caution however, as high partial pressures of inert gas may cause a kind of intoxication, known as nitrogen narcosis. Excessive oxygen (>7psi partial), meanwhile, is a powerful poison.

2007-06-20 07:56 AM » Link: [3638#28163|text]

To a large part, the temperature of astronomical bodies considered here will be determined by the activity of their sun - and what happens with the radiation on/around the planet itself.

An important term is Albedo, the reflective ratio of electromagnetic radiation power; simply put, white surface reflects light (high albedo), while dark surface absorbs it (low). For our purposes, we can extend this beyond the visible parts of the spectrum.

The albedo of a planet can be influenced by the atmosphere itself (and the clouds). And these three in turn can be influenced by the biosphere once it has sufficient impact - so select the initial flora carefully, to avoid complications.

But let's reconsider this from the main point of view: Life, as we are used to it, requires a thin range of temperatures to prosper in. Life in general can be expected to be much more robust.

2007-05-25 08:03 PM » Link: [3638#27542|text]
Option: a planet on a strongly elliptical orbit, rendering it for parts of the local year hard to inhabit. Whether too hot or too cold, humans would have to hide until the right season comes again.

2007-05-25 08:03 PM » Link: [3638#27543|text]
Option: a distant, cold planet could be still seeded with carefully grown trees, that could prosper despite the 'ice age'. Even a planet with permanent winter is better than nothing.

2007-05-25 08:04 PM » Link: [3638#27544|text]
Option: tidal heating
The frictional heating of a moon's interior due to flexure caused by the gravitational pull of its parent planet and possibly neighboring satellites. The most dramatic example in the Sol system is the tidal heating induced in each of the four Galilean satellites by their mutual pull and, more significantly, by the powerful attraction of Jupiter. In the case of Io, the result is global volcanism. In the case of Europa, and perhaps also of Ganymede and Callisto, the effects of tidal heating are less dramatic but possibly much more profound in that they give rise to a suspected under-ice ocean which might conceivably support life.

From Enceladus

2007-08-31 05:17 PM » Link: [3638#29711|text]

For a comfortable living, the surface should be mostly stable, as intense tectonic activity can spoil anyone's day. From the initial and unstable periods of a planet's existence, this activity can be expected to lessen over time, as a homogeneous body forms and the internal heat with radiation cool down. (Moons) and other interstellar bodies disrupt this tendency towards piece.

According to some theories, tectonic plates we know on Earth are caused by life as well. The slow, but relentless processing and transporting of some materials, and the frugal deposition of others (a classical example are corals), keep exerting pressure on parts of the Earth's crust. Given enough time on the (geological scale), this may drive the tectonics of a whole world.

This doesn't even start on the topic of surface itself, ie geography. There can be 'young' worlds with many extremes, and strongly eroded 'old' worlds. There can be worlds mostly covered by oceans, or purely desert worlds. Anything is possible.

2007-05-25 08:06 PM » Link: [3638#27545|text]
Option: the regular approach of a large body (or something more mysterious) creates an 'earthquake season' on a planet. Inhabitants and random visitors beware.

2007-05-25 08:32 PM » Link: [3638#27552|text]
A blogger considers the habitable conditions of planets and moons, and notes an important factor - gravity - that has quite an influence on comfortable living conditions.

Particularly moons and smaller planets don't have the 1G we are used to (future sensitivities in this regard may vary, of course). A way to imbue these bodies with larger gravity is to shrink them (see With strong gravitational/electromagnetic/something fields could be a planet compressed to higher density, and the same weight with a smaller radius has just the required result.

How this process would exactly work, and what difficulties it would bring, I leave to the reader's imagination.

Credit goes to

2007-09-20 10:46 AM » Link: [3638#30360|text]

While all of this is hypothetical, the role of our own moon is to many scientists vital, if not critical for our environment. On the one side, it probably helps keeping the core of Earth in rotation, thus enabling a strong magnetic field which is also deemed important. On the other hand, there is the immeasurable impact on our oceans.

Note that our moon is relatively large when compared to our planet. The effect of a smaller moon or several is likely to be different.

2007-05-25 08:06 PM » Link: [3638#27546|text]
Option: a nice turnaround on the concept of moons is to make the planet itself a moon of a larger planet. For a more aesthetically pleasing view, it can have planetary rings to shepherd... and plenty of material to come crashing down in regular meteoritic showers. And think of all the probes that can be hidden there!

2007-05-26 03:16 PM » Link: [3638#27560|text]
The Gaia factor

Life, when in sufficient amount, will influence or dominate a planet's weather, and determine things like temperature, humidity and surface composition. Where such a complex system will evolve may be hard to tell - it may very well grow beyond the plans of its creators, and beyond their control, though not necessarily to the detriment of life in general.

The same is true for the composition of the atmosphere, so care should be taken to pick the right fauna and flora, and if needed change it to achieve the necessary dynamic stability.

The proper science for the study of these effects may be geophysiology, more popularly known as the Gaia theory. Life, it claims, has a tendency to support itself.

2007-05-25 08:07 PM » Link: [3638#27547|text]
Option: life as a planetar phenomenon is easy to discern, by the ways it brings it out of the thermodynamical equilibrium and other effects. But if it is freshly born, or dieing (or long dead with the seeds of life still dormant), the best scans can fail to find it.

So what happens if new, transplanted life starts to prosper, and meets the older, local lifeform suddenly thriving in the changed environment?

2007-05-26 04:24 PM » Link: [3638#27562|text]
Methods of terraforming:

- life - where applicable, organisms, probably genetically engineered or altered, will tackle on the task of converting the geosphere into a biosphere, see also Ecopoiesis.

Although effective, and good at creating an initial store of organic compounds for the later, more advanced biosphere, this can take VERY LONG, picture hundreds or thousands of years. Races with a sufficient lifespan or foresight may seed this way numerous planets for later use - and be quite annoyed when they come to their new home only to see it was 'discovered' by somebody else!

Even if other methods are used, it is useful to start planting useful plants as a planet becomes more and more habitable. Making the planet alive will take time.

- chemistry - making the problem one of the right catalysts, all is needed is a massive reactor to supply energy, and the time for the brute-force approach to get the job done.

- nanotechnologies - a potentially very viable option, to let tiny machines do the work for you. This may be easy, but watch for the chance of their 'mutation', or getting out of control like with the lifeforms. (Most likely they will have to multiply on their own to cover a whole planet, so tiny flaws could be replicated...) It is suggested to make them of limited duration to naturally pass away once their purpose is fulfilled.

2007-05-25 08:09 PM » Link: [3638#27548|text]
Related to these....

One mechanism to create habitable worlds in your universe is: Johnnies and Appleseeds. This is a good science fiction explanation on how Earth compatable life so often errupts.

2007-08-31 04:23 PM » Link: [3638#29708|text]
Many worlds

The Firefly setting, as cool as it is, rests on one very unrealistic assumption: dozens of planets and moons fitting for life exist in a single solar system. But for the sake of storytelling, we can't let ourselves limit with something that is merely 'improbable', can we?

2007-05-25 08:11 PM » Link: [3638#27549|text]
One possibility are several suns in a single system, around which planets rotate normally. Suns can be replaced by Gas giants (aka Jovian planet) large enough to hold their own moons of sufficient size.

By the way, most stars appear to be members of double star or triple star, or even double-double star systems.

2007-05-25 08:12 PM » Link: [3638#27550|text]
Another option are Lagrange points, locations derived from two massive bodies; in these points their gravitational forces are just about equal, so a small body may find a stable place to dwell here. (See one example.) If the two bodies are sufficiently large (picture two suns, or a sun and a larger-than-Jupiter planet), a planet similar to Earth can be positioned in the L-point - or several, one in a point each. Up to five such bodies may exist; whether they are fitting for life is another question.

A theoretical alternative to have more planets in a good location, is to have several on one orbit. (See the Klemperer rosettes for more info.)


Both of the above cases should be rare. While they are thought to be quite stable, a question is if they can arise naturally, during the formation of a solar system.

Their presence, therefore, may indicate a massive astrophysical intervention of an advanced civilization. So, ideal as they may be for settling, be careful around them.

2007-05-25 08:18 PM » Link: [3638#27551|text]
For Firefly...
Per the setting material in the games and the novels, all these planets were terraformed by the Central Worlds not that long ago (by means not explained). They then litterally threw people at these worlds to syphon off excess population.

2007-08-31 04:19 PM » Link: [3638#29707|text]
But there can (and should) be even stranger planets out there.

One source is the Worlds and Planets scroll, some examples will follow.

2007-06-18 06:23 PM » Link: [3638#28102|text]
Very much out of usual concepts are Rogue Planets

These planets may have the size, and even atmosphere, but they are not orbiting any sun, in fact they are not gravitationally bound to any star, and move through space on their own. Without a sun to warm them up, they are likely to be dead, frozen places. However, there are theories how even such a dark world could maintain and keep relatively high temperatures, high enough for life as we know it.

(See the Wikipedia entry for more information.)

2007-07-10 05:05 PM » Link: [3638#28657|text]
In theory, anything massive enough with a solid surface could serve as a planet, even remnants of stars and similar bodies.

- A Black Dwarf (a very hypotetical body) would be cold enough, but probably would have to loose on weight to be habitably.

- Losing weight is easy also for other bodies (like brown dwarfs, large objects too cold to be stars), if there is something sufficiently large nearby - like, say, another star. Stripped of the outer layers, what remains could be a planet, of possibly quite an exotic mix. (Don't ask me how to terraform that, though. ;) )

2007-07-10 06:08 PM » Link: [3638#28663|text]
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Comments ( 24 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Wulfhere
June 19, 2007, 14:00
This deserves more attention than it has received.

A well-presented, well-considered review of factors that could be used to produce credible and interesting alien worlds.
July 3, 2007, 15:58
Update: Now with working external links!
Voted valadaar
July 3, 2007, 16:11
Meant to vote on this one earlier.

Nicely done!
August 20, 2010, 20:27
Nice submission, Terraforming is possible in real life, we can make it, but the technology required to make it is so expensive no country is willing to fund it at all.
Voted Mourngrymn
April 21, 2011, 3:43

While I do not see me using this, it is none-the-less a very interesting read. Helpful to any sci-fi genre based game setting that may require any depth of information to be available. I applaud you for simply going through the effort of writing this.

Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
April 21, 2011, 7:40

This definitely deserves more attention than it has received. Will try to use this in my upcoming "one night session sci fi horror survival thingie". Thanks a bunch.



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