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Why Elon Musk’s Idea to Nuke Mars Won’t Happen

Terraforming the planet with thermonuclear weapons: Best idea ever or disaster waiting to happen?

smithsonian.com

Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk appeared on Late Night with Steven Colbert Wednesday and raised eyebrows among a surprising set of viewers: scientists. As Samantha Masunaga reports for The Los Angeles Times, Musk’s claim that nuking the poles of Mars could make the planet livable is “raising red flags” within the scientific community.

That’s right — Musk suggested using nuclear weapons to make Mars a better place for humans on national television. He was referring to the idea of terraforming, in which Mars would be transformed from what the entrepreneur calls “a fixer-upper of a planet” to a habitable environment. In order to do so, scientists would have to figure out a way to transform the planet’s inhospitable surface to one on which human life could thrive. One theory on how to do so involves dropping thermonuclear weapons on Mars’ icy poles so they would vaporize and raise the planet’s miserably chilly temperatures.  

Musk’s comment led Colbert to call him a “supervillain,” but scientists seem to think his idea is more misguided than evil. Brian Toon of the University of Colorado, Boulder tells Masunaga that, while there are many theories on how to terraform Mars, “blowing up bombs is not a good one.”

Gary King, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University, agrees — he tells NBC News’ Keith Wagstaff that scientists aren’t sure dropping nuclear bombs will work. In fact, says King, the plan could backfire, he tells Wagstaff. “Cloud formation could have a dampening effect, for instance, cooling Mars rather than warming it,” he says.

There is a slower solution: Create a greenhouse gas effect, heating the planet until it was able to support liquid water, plants and perhaps humans. But as physicist and “acolyte of Mars” Casey Handmer writes, the energy required would be “10 million times more than the energy provided by the largest nuclear weapon ever built.”

Maybe a nuclear bomb could help speed up that process, but it would almost certainly result in the destruction of Mars’ surface — something NASA is against. An agency representative told Masunaga that though they, too, are all about colonizing Mars, they’re also “committed to promoting exploration of the solar system in a way that protects explored environments as they exist in their natural state.” 

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