SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was a guest on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert last night and stunned the audience with a seemingly outrageous suggestion: Earth should nuke Mars. Wait, what? Was he REALLY suggesting starting an interplanetary war with the Red Planet? Not really. The idea is to “terraform” it so that future generations of humans could one day live there.
“It’s a fixer-upper of a planet,” Musk told Colbert. “Eventually you could transform Mars into an Earth-like planet.” Hmmmmm. Okay.
NBC News gives a brief rundown on why it might work:
Right now, Mars seems like a dry, dead planet. But its polar ice caps contain about equal parts water and carbon dioxide.
Nuclear weapons could be used to vaporize them, releasing those materials into the atmosphere. Once the atmosphere got thick enough, the greenhouse effect would kick in: energy from the sun, absorbed by the planet and released as infrared radiation, would be trapped.
That would continue heating up the planet, releasing more carbon dioxide, setting off a chain reaction until, ideally, the surface pressure of Mars would increase enough for liquid water to exist — making it much more habitable for oxygen-producing plants.
“You could start turning Mars from a red planet into a green planet,” Michael Shara, curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s astrophysics department, told NBC News.
Nuclear weapons aren’t the only way that humans could melt the planet’s polar caps. Shara offered some alternatives, like finding a way to guide asteroids to Mars’ poles, or covering the poles in a fine, black dust to absorb sunlight and heat them up.
But many ideas involve transporting heavy equipment to Mars, which would be very expensive. Nukes are fairly compact and immensely powerful, offering a lot of bang for the buck.
Using nukes might not be the best public relations move. But modern thermonuclear weapons can be designed to leave very little fallout, Shara said, and wouldn’t pose much danger centuries after they hit.
It could take firing thousands of them over the course of decades to start the greenhouse effect, Shara said. After that, it might only be centuries before people could start buying vacation homes on Mars.
Read the whole article for some of the potential downsides here.
And watch his interview with Colbert below.