A "forest bubble" on Mars? Scientist proposes ambitious plan for sending wildlife to Mars

The ambitious proposal could help realize Elon Musk's vision of SpaceX's Starship as a "futuristic Noah's Ark".
Chris Young
3D Illustration of a Mars outpost colony with a geodesic dome
3D Illustration of a Mars outpost colony with a geodesic dome

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A botanist and ecologist has crafted a detailed proposal for a flourishing green space on the barren, desolate surface of Mars, a report from CNET reveals.

The "extraterrestrial nature reserve", or ETNR, would take the form of a greenhouse-like "forest bubble" designed to create an Earth-like ecosystem on the red planet. It would allow humans to experience a slice of home on Mars while also acting as a sustainable source of food and raw materials for early inhabitants.

Dreaming of an Earth-like environment on Mars

The botanist, Paul Smith from the University of Bristol's civil engineering department, published his proposal in a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology last month, in which he lays out the foundation for creating a thriving, contained ecosystem on Mars.

The paper starts off by outlining the challenges colonizers will experience on Mars, including a harsh climate that isn't conducive to life, as well as radiation and poor sunlight conditions compared to Earth. Despite those challenges, Smith explains that certain Earth life could adapt to life on the red planet.

Fauna such as soil microbes, fungi, and invertebrates like earthworms and spiders could all live on Mars, Smith argues. As for flora, plants like junipers and birches would be able to survive on little sunlight.

Smith emphasized the fact that we shouldn't look to create an exact replica of an Earth forest on Mars, as nonhuman vertebrates, like birds, fish, and raccoons shouldn't be forced into an extraterrestrial habitat that would not allow them to engage in their natural behaviors.

"ETNR designers should consider species as ecological cogs that might be assembled into functional ecosystems," Smith writes. "Replication of Earth forests is currently unfeasible but development of new ecosystems, functioning in unexpected ways, is conceivable."

Elon Musk: Starship like a "futuristic Noah's Ark"

While the idea of an ecosystem on Mars that brings life other than humans to the red planet is a compelling idea, Smith does concede in his paper that he hasn't considered the economics of the enterprise.

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SpaceX is currently working on its fully reusable Starship spacecraft in order to drive down the cost of spaceflight and make human missions to Mars feasible — the company recently carried out a static fire test on its Starship prototype ahead of an orbital maiden flight. However, that's not to say it won't be an incredibly costly endeavor for humans and cargo, let alone animals.

That said, Smith's outline suggests small invertebrates would be best suited to a Mars ecosystem, meaning they would weigh relatively little and could potentially hitch a ride alongside other cargo. Smith's proposal also presents the ETNR as a potential lifeline for some species. "If human population growth is not controlled, natural areas must be sacrificed. An alternative is to create more habitat, terraforming Mars," the paper reads.

All of this is in line with Elon Musk's ambitious vision of Starship, which he described earlier this year as a "futuristic Noah's Ark". Firstly though, SpaceX will have to get its massive reusable spacecraft to orbit.