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The Re-making of Mars: Terraforming Table

On Exhibit posts

The scent of evergreens, stones covered in moss, and the hum of rushing water are familiar features in many forests on Earth. But could these also describe a future landscape on Mars?

Once a staple of science fiction, terraforming—or making a planet more like Earth—is now being studied as a real possibility, as scientists research how to apply knowledge of evolution, climate, and technology to re-create the blue planet’s environment on the red planet. Visitors can learn firsthand how humans might make Mars habitable with a custom, multi-user touch table featured in the Museum’s exhibition Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration.

Created by the Museum’s Exhibition Department, the one-of-a-kind table is the latest example of digital elements that help make exhibitions increasingly interactive. “Museum visits are social experiences,” says Hélène Alonso, director of exhibit interactives and media. “With the terraforming table, visitors will be able to team up to achieve Mars’s transformation. They can share a goal, compare strategies, help each other.” At 6 feet wide and 4 feet long, the table is also large enough to allow others to watch the planetary metamorphosis unfold.

The simulation opens with an aerial shot of Mars, looking like a giant penny against a dark backdrop of space. From this global view, players must warm the planet and build its atmosphere by various means, including crashing asteroids to release frozen carbon dioxide that will thicken the atmosphere and building soil-burning factories to set off a runaway greenhouse effect, a process that would speed global warming. The team rigorously researched the science behind each scenario—even down to the routes melting water would travel across the Martian globe, for which they relied on NASA terrain maps.

Once users have created a warm planet with an atmosphere, the simulation zooms in on the Martian surface. Here, players build the biosphere by introducing bacteria, lichen, and algae, which prepare the soil for flowering plants and, eventually, oxygen-pumping evergreens. As visitors work individually to alter the climate and flora, alerts about the group’s collective progress scroll overhead like a Twitter feed.

Scientists and philosophers will continue to review the ethical dimensions of terraforming as research continues. If microbial life is discovered on Mars, for instance, humans will need to decide whether to proceed with terraforming or to leave the microbes undisturbed.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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