Can Terraforming Venus Be The Solution To Population Growth?

by Kieran Griffith on November 18, 2010

It seems to me that Aubrey de Grey is not a big fan of one of the possible solutions to the spiraling population expansion of the human race. That solution is to move at least some of us to other planets. Admittedly, such ideas may look like total science fiction  and up to now have usually been focused on Mars. Thus today there are considerable numbers of serious people interested in terraforming the red planet. University professors, intellectuals and adventurers support the colonization idea because a one-way trip to Mars would be probably half as expensive as a full round-trip mission. Thus, it is reasoned that Martian colonies should be set up there from the beginning. (Before colonizing Mars, however, we ought to fully utilize remote places such as Antarctica, Northern Canada, and Siberia, since those are much easier to begin with.)

Aubrey de Grey may be right in thinking that sending substantial number of humans into space is not a realistic idea for this century. Nevertheless it might not be as hard to start extraterrestrial colonies as some people think, especially if up to now we have been looking in the wrong direction. I propose that instead of Mars, we ought to consider the Earth’s Twin - Venus.

Venus vs Earth Comparison

Venus is known as Earth’s twin for several good reasons: it is the closest of all planets to Earth; it has nearly the same mass and size and has a thick atmosphere. People talk a lot about terraforming Mars but the problem would be that there is nothing to make an atmosphere there out of. Venus, on the other hand, with its carbon dioxide atmosphere, even though it is both huge and hot because of its greenhouse gas effect, does give us something to work with. Thus, in terms of atmosphere forming, at least we don’t have to make something out of nothing.

Venus Surface View (Photo by The Associated Press)

The atmosphere of Venus is, composed chiefly of carbon dioxide, which generates a surface pressure 90 times greater than that on Earth. This massive blanket of carbon dioxide is also responsible for a runaway greenhouse effect that heats the planet’s surface to an average temperature of 467°C (872°F) – hot enough to melt lead. This would be a bit uncomfortable for even the most genetically enhanced humans (or cyborgs) to deal with, at least for the foreseeable future. However, some Earth organisms, known as hyperthermophiles, are able to deal with similarly incredible pressures and temperatures since they are able to live in temperatures above 80°C (176°F). The hardiest hyperthermophiles yet discovered live on the superheated walls of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, requiring temperatures of at least 90°C for survival. None have been found yet that can live in the temperatures and pressures similar to those on the surface of Venus but they probably do exist on Earth (or you could say ‘in’ Earth, well below the surface) and, at least theoretically, have not been discovered yet.

So if we did have creatures that could survive at the temperature of Venus what good are they? There is nothing to eat on Venus so they could not be used to convert the CO2 atmosphere to solid carbon and oxygen gas but would starve to death? Well that’s not really true because there are lots of sulfur eating bacteria that gorge on sulfur like Cookie Monsters. Sulfuric acid is available in vast quantities in the atmosphere and they can eat the sulfur, breathe in the carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.

Comets as a source of water

Then we come to the next and perhaps the biggest problem that we would need a solution for. There is no water on Venus to speak off. I have pointed out how microbes can do all of the things that you need to do to. However all living things require water to survive and there is virtually no water on Venus. All the hydrogen from the formation of the planet has escaped into space and the only viable source would be redirecting comets to land on Venus every time they enter the solar system. This is certainly possible if the highly elliptical orbits of comets are modified when they are about as far away from the Sun as Neptune, but will take quite a few decades before it becomes practical and shows significant results.


Well, as Aubrey de Gray likes to point out when explaining Regenerative Medicine — humans (and all living things) are highly complex machines. With ultra advanced nanotechnology that will come a decade or two after the singularity, probably before 2050 it will be entirely possible to create microbe-like self-replicating robots that will be able to go to Venus, eat the sulfuric acid, breathe in the carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen and carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide that the nanobots will also be breathing out will eventually break down into CO2 again and can just be inhaled once more by these self-replicating artificial life forms. Thus we should have an Oxygen/Nitrogen Atmosphere in a couple of decades that is probably about 60 Earth atmospheres in pressure, but without any serious greenhouse problems. This would still be a very uncomfortable (though not fatal) atmosphere for a normal human. It will also be very hot and perhaps highly radio-active because Venus has no significant magnetic field with which to deflect the rays from the occasional solar eruptions as the Earth does. However, if as Ray Kurzweil often points out, humans will be able to transcend biology and merge with machines then it might be eventually possible for a human to walk around without any protective space suit (or even naked) on the surface of the Moon (or Venus, or Mars) if he or she is designed with a “heavy duty body.”

So there you have it, if you can put all or some of these theoretically possible solutions together into one coherent space program, then by the end of the 21st century humankind can have a second Earth to move to and provide us with a second home thereby alleviating population growth on Earth. At first, water for the Venus colonies would have to be shipped from Earth or the Moon, and then eventually - made from comets. By then, human resource efficiency will be extremely good since by necessity it will be vital for survival on Earth. Thus a closed-loop fully recycling habitat would not be that hard to create.

Terraforming a planet

Life on Venus may have its funny peculiarities such as a day that is 116.75 Earth days long or almost exactly 1401 hours. Since 1400 or 1200 are nice round numbers the Venusian hour might be 2.57 or 3 seconds longer then an Earth hour. There may not be a cloud in the sky for a long time and a pronounced heat haze and mirages may be the norm. Flammable materials on Earth will likely become explosive in Venus’ thick oxygen atmosphere.There might be a risk of spontaneous human combustion. The Sun will look bigger. There will be no moon at night ever though many stars with very pronounced twinkling…

Apart from those and other oddities Venus is probably going to be a lovely place to live in. Wonderful mountains and valleys to travel around as a tourist and more solar power then you could ever use to charge every single device from electric cars and high speed trains to super efficient airliners and even artificial planetary or local magnetic fields. In my view, the best way to make terraforming Venus a reality would be through a multinational corporation set up by most or all of the Earth nations. The biggest problem that the project needs to overcome, both for the self replicating nanobots and later the colonists, would be water shortage. But I believe that this is not an insurmountable problem. In all likelihood, there will be other problems that I have not thought of or mentioned here so feel free to contribute to this idea.

So, what do you think? Can terraforming Venus be the solution to population growth on Earth?

About the Author:

Kieran Griffith is an adviser to the SENS Foundation for Advancing Rejuvenation Biotechnologies on space colonization. He has degrees in Space Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the International Space University and is interested in a career in Commercial Spaceflight.

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  • Khannea Suntzu

    draw up a sun shield of spinning foil particles around most of the albedo of Venus. Now calculate how fast a body like venus radiates away heat and let it cool off. If the sunshield reflects enough solar energy my expectation is that we’ll see CO2 snow out of the atmosphere in less than a decade. However that won’t cool down the surface. Venus will be explosively and viscously volcanic for centuries. Much like Io in the latter case. I think we need a bit more trickery than just nanoids here.

  • Thomas Fledrich

    Well I believe sending out large numbers of humans into permanent settlements will not only become possible in the course of this century, but it will be essential for several reasons.Maybe you’ve heard the saying, if you manage to get into Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Actually it’s even more than half-way, let me explain by numbers:The delta v (the speed change a vehicle must obtain relative to Earth surface ) required to reach a low Earh orbit (LEO) is about 9.5 km/s. This means a chemical rocket, as used today, needs to consist to about 90% of propellant and must be designed to the very extreme limit of what’s technically possible to do at all. Even then, most of the remaining 10% of mass is just the supporting structure and engines, leaving only about 2% of the launch mass to be payload. The engines at the beginning of flight need to be strong enough to push all this mass up overcoming Earth’s gravity, i. e. accellerate at >1g.Just 3.5 km/s more and one can go into an orbit around the Moon, not much more than this to go to Mars or visit valuable asteroids. These 3.5 km/s don’t need to be achieved with the same huge acceleration as the first 9.5 km/s, so one can use smaller and more effective propulsion systems (electric, solar thermal, sails, etc.).There is hardly any delta v required to travel between groups of asteroids, and only about 2km/s to get into an orbit around the Moon, which allows for much more effective designs. Remember the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), that was used to travel from a Lunar orbit to the surface and back, and compare the ratio of useful carrying capacity (astronauts, Moon rocks, rovers etc.) of that vehicle to the ratio of the huge Saturn V that was required just to get all that into Earth orbit.So what we need to do is to establish an initial, self sufficient settlement in one of these locations without the annoying gravity field of a big planet like Earth, then it will be much easier (cheaper) to grow out from there using locally available material.On these grounds (among others), I consider Venus to be one of the worst possibilities for initial settlement. Venus’s gravity is almost as bad as the Earth’s so we wouldn’t be able to start an exponential wave of space settlement by focusing on that planet.But why do I think getting off the Earth will become much more affordable for people without big pockets? The current status quo that space launch businesses need big corporations or governments with huge investments to function is challenged on multiple fronts as I write this. SpaceX is one of the best examples, PayPal founder Elon Musk having developed and successfully flown an orbital rocket using about 100 Million $ of his own money. Now you might think that’s very expensive, but it’s actually not the cost of one vehicle but of total development for everything from scratch (new engines, structure, guidance and control systems etc.). It’s actually just a fraction of the money involved in the creation of a new airliner or even just a car. A bridge spanning across a mid sized river costs that much.
    This results in a still expensive conventional (albeit more environmentally friendly) chemical rocket system, but other designs in development from various groups look at more revolutionary concepts (air/sea launch, scramjets, beamed propulsion) that will eventually, within the next few decades, push down the cost/mass to LEO to a fraction of what it is today. Today it costs about 30 Mio. $ to launch someone into orbit. If we can get this number down to say 300,000$, and this money not for a round-trip, but a one way one to a space habitat bootstrapped at the asteroids, it will be affordable for average people if they sell all their Earth based assets (mainly their houses and cars), that they won’t need anymore anyway.Or to put it into a less money focused example, today it costs maybe 1000 work years to get someone into orbit, we need to get that number down to 10 (also think of improved productivity by automation in this regard).

  • Kieran Griffith

    Why would you want to start an exponential wave of interplanetary settlements are you talking about colonizing every single planet, dwarf planet and asteroid in the Solar System like island hopping? Space Engineering is extremely expensive, when you go to Venus you can stay there and not have to hop on to colonize Mercury in a few years. Venus is the only other planet in the Solar system that can be comfortably terraformed this century, People will be emigrating from Earth to the rest of the solar system, not from Venus to the rest of the solar system, The Venus gravity well is not a factor. Mars might become habitable but only to ultra-robust humans which are 99% synthetic life forms. On Venus the colonists can at least be 99% biological with at most blood conditioning to better radiate heat from the body and a slightly higher rate of the use of regenerative medicine. The ideas of building cities in the vacuum of space or even cities on the Moon or Asteroids, are thousands of times more expensive relatively then terraforming a planet comfortable enough for a biological humans to live on. Answer me this one question, If Venus was colonized where would Venusian people have to move to, and when would they have to move there? Venus would not become overpopulated for many decades and by then humans would have the option of moving as far away as nearby stars.

  • Kieran Griffith

    Venus actually has had almost no geological activity for 300-500 million years and there are over 150 medium sized craters on the surface of Venus, a lot more then Earth, so there has not been much volcanic processes at all probably. Venus is going to remain less active then the Earth for the next few million years until there is some other major resurfacing event. I am not a geologist however, are you saying that when the surface of the planet Venus cools then the surface will start to become volcanic, how is this so? Let the self replicating, carbon dioxide breathing nanobots infect the planet like rabbits infecting Australia but change the environment for the better without having to do anything but monitor the situation. Thanks for your contribution, good to see intelligent minds give attention to your ideas.

  • Thomas Fledrich

    Well I would just focus on the best locations for the beginning, then see how that develops. Space Engineering is only expensive because launch prices are so high at the moment. It doesn’t take much high tech to make airtight rooms if mass is not an issue (as it wouldn’t be if the material was mined from nearby asteroids). Rotate them and you also have artificial gravity, as much or little as you like.

    But I guess we are just talking about different parts of the same issue. Of course terraforming Venus is a good idea in itself, but we will need some infrastructure in the outer solar system for diverting those comets, too.

    Thanks for your response and trust, I hope technology will get to the point fast enough where we will all be able to work on these issues for real. That will be exciting times and likely the most positive what intelligent life from this little blue planet will have ever accomplished by cooperating with no artificial borders separating us for the first time.

  • guest

    Well, I like the idea but since the atmosphere is thicker and the sun will look bigger, a second greenhouse effect can happen in hundreds of thousands of years or millions. See, removing most of the atmosphere and putting solar shades can prevent Venus from suffering a second greenhouse effect. We can use a kuiper object or planet Ceres for a Venusian moon.

  • myninjaplease

    [...] from those and other oddities Venus is probably going to be a lovely place to live in. Wonderful mountains and valleys to travel around [...]

  • Zarniwoop Vann Harl

    There may not be much water on Venus, but there’s plenty of hydrogen and oxygen. You can make water out of the sulfuric, hydrochloric, and hydrofluoric acids and some of the carbon dioxide.

  • Scott Lord

    It is the logical step for our civilisation… faced with the fact that putting ‘all your eggs into one basket’ isn’t a good idea!

    It’s a well established idea now that an Asteroid Impact could wipe us out. Remote yes, but still a statistical possibility.

    So, it is imperative that to ensure better odds we have to be in two places rather than one!

    And I totally agree that Venus is the best solution. It has so much going for it that the once ridiculous problems it posed when I was a child are already being seen as not insurmountable. Namely, Nanotechnology.

    Turning Venus habitable is the best action our race could (and should) take.

    It is interesting to see that the idea is taking root all over the place. I came to this conclusion independently, and I am sure over the next few decades it will become more and more viable.

    Until mankind has solved the ultimate riddle - namely what exactly sentient intelligence IS, and how it is reproduced artificially, then we have to ensure our own survival in our present form. 

    I imagine it is a race between these two technologies. AI vs Terraforming. Both seem equally solvable in the next few hundred years…

  • Tater Gumfries

    “Can Terraforming Venus Be The Solution To Population Growth?”

    Nope. Takes too much energy to get a human from one planet to another.

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