Elon Musk wants to nuke Mars – WTF?

There are all kinds of problems associated with putting humans on Mars. But overlooking the logistics of the whole thing, and imagining for a second we could just hop on a bus and arrive on Martian soil with change from a fiver, there’s a bigger issue: it’s hugely inhospitable to humans.

As Dr Lucy Rogers wrote in her piece exploring the difficulties: “Astronauts would face an average temperature of -55°C, surface winds of up to 80mph and dust storms and whirlwinds.”

“The pressure is only 1% of that on Earth, and the atmosphere contains over 95% carbon dioxide. Also, Mars has no magnetosphere, so radiation hits the surface. Therefore, humans would need to stay in enclosed habitats that offer similar protection to a spacecraft, and would need airlocks and spacesuits to venture onto the planet’s surface.”

Not an ideal holiday home, then, and there isn’t a quick and easy solution. Or is there? Elon Musk – the entrepreneur involved in SpaceX, PayPal and Tesla – has a suggestion: nuking Mars.

Come again?

For those who don’t want to watch the video, here’s a quick transcript:

Colbert: Why do we want to go to Mars? It’s uninhabitable.

Musk: It’s very inhospitable, that’s true.

Colbert: It is – you like have to be in domes and everything and…

Musk: Initially… initially.

Colbert: Initially? Really? How long before we could turn Mars into some place we could live?

Musk: It is a fixer-upper of a planet. First you’re going to have to live in transparent domes… but eventually you could transform Mars into an Earth-like planet.

Colbert: How would you do that?

Musk: You’d warm it up.

Colbert: With a blanket?

Musk: There’s a fast way and a slow way…

Colbert: Okay, give me the fast way.

Musk: The fast way is to drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.

Colbert: You’re a super villain!

“By turning the ice from Mars’ poles to water vapour, enough of it may enter the atmosphere to change the climate into one that’s a bit more Earth-like.”

Bad news for the imaginary aliens people keep seeing on the planet, for sure, but a late-night chat show isn’t the ideal place to discuss intricate theoretical science. The idea is that, by turning the ice from Mars’ poles to water vapour, enough of it may enter the atmosphere to change the climate into one that’s a bit more Earth-like.

Brian Toon from the University of Colorado, who wrote a paper on terraforming Mars back in 1991, told the LA Times that, while it’s possible to make that happen, bombs aren’t the answer: “It seems possible to make it Earth-like, but there’s a lot of barriers to overcome. Blowing up bombs is not a good one.”

Jason Smerdon, from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory also acknowledges the possibility of terraforming other planets, but told US News he “would be cautious about our ability to terraform and manage another planet when we struggle so mightily with the practical and preventative measures that are vitally needed to maintain our own.” That’s a fair point, and one which Musk – concerned about climate change as he is – should probably acknowledge.


Another scientist, Dr Matthew Genge from Imperial College London wonders exactly how fast a solution Musk’s idea is. “If we wanted to terraform Mars quickly, the way to do it would be to evaporate those ice packs, but I don’t think we can turn enough ice into gas using nuclear weapons. It would take ten centuries,” Genge told IBTimes UK.

“A nuclear winter on a planet that’s already a bit on the nippy side.”

“The biggest nuclear weapon ever made is the Tsar Bomba which had a yield of 25 megatons of TNT, and that would still not be enough. You’d need a lot of nuclear weapons. They cause radiation and it’s not just the immediate effects of that radiation. It’s embedded into the target materials, which generate lots of nasty isotopes which are really quite harmful to human beings,” he added.

On top of that, another side effect could actually cause Mars to cool even further, according to Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Centre at Penn State University. Detonating nukes could “generate so much dust and particles that they literally block out a significant portion of incoming sunlight.” In other words: a nuclear winter on a planet that’s already a bit on the nippy side.

NASA, too isn’t too enthused about the idea, either. “We are also committed to promoting exploration of the solar system in a way that protects explored environments as they exist in their natural state,” the Space Agency said in a statement.

So what do you do when your idea is pretty much universally panned?

Back to the drawing board.

Images: CTBO and European Space Agency used under Creative Commons

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