Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quick note on terraforming Galilean moons

This post comes from an "Ask Tsana" comment.

Sam Keola asked:
Aloha from Hawai'i again Tsana! I have a hypothetical question. If in the very distant future we had the technology to terraform, would it be best to terraform Callisto and Ganymede or set up domed bases? Ganymede is suppose to have an ocean similar to Europa, but I'm not sure if that's "world wide". Your thoughts on terraforming!
The main problem with terraforming either of those moons is their gravity isn't large enough to keep any atmospheric gases for long after they're introduced. Ganymede, which is larger, has a surface gravity of close to a seventh of Earth's which is less than half of Mars's and Mars has difficulty keeping much of an atmosphere itself. Purely from that point of view, domes or something else sealed would be better.
Credit: Galileo Project, Voyager Project, JPL, NASA

Once you've decided to build something sealed, then it would be better for colonists to build on Ganymede, as opposed to the other Galilean moons, for a few reasons:
  • It has the highest surface gravity, not by much but every little bit would prevent colonist's bodies from degrading. Actually, because the Galilean moons are less dense than Earth's moon, they have a lower surface gravity, despite being larger in volume. You're going to have low gravity-related heath problems in any case, however.
  • It's not as close to Jupiter as Europa (and Io!) is. The phenomenon responsible for keeping Europa's interior liquid is tidal friction thanks to its proximity to Jupiter. It's the sort of thing that also makes the surface more unstable (prone to volcanoes -- not as much as Io, of course -- and quakes) and less hospitable to people. You can read more about it here.
On the other hand, if what you're doing is mining and the minerals etc you're interested in are found on both Ganymede and Callisto, then Callisto is the place to put your colony. It's gravity slightly lower and, more importantly, it's further from Jupiter, meaning that when you're exporting your rocks, there's less gravitational pull from Jupiter to overcome.

In terms of finding water to mine, all three moons in question (ie, not Io) have water on them, so that shouldn't be too much of a problem, especially if you're already planning to mine other things.

Of course, there are also reasons why Europa would be a desirable place for a colony, especially for scientific reasons, exploring it's subsurface ocean primary among them. There's a good chance there's microbial life there.

So there you have it, if you're going to colonise the larger Galilean moons, it's better to build a close structure on them rather than try to impart an atmosphere. It would be even harder than giving Earth's moon a permanent atmosphere.


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