What scientists say about Elon Musk’s idea to nuke Mars


Elon Musk might think it's a good idea to warm up Mars with thermonuclear weapons so humans can live on it, but scientists are raising red flags about the idea.

The CEO of Hawthorne-based SpaceX talked Mars colonization, among other topics, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Wednesday.

When Colbert asked how he would eventually transform the Red Planet into a livable place, Musk said it would need to be warmed up.

The fast way?

“Drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.”

This prompted Colbert to label Musk a “supervillain.”

The average temperature on Mars is similar to that of Antarctica in the winter, said Brian Toon, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who co-wrote a paper in 1991 about making the Red Planet habitable.

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“It seems possible to make it earthlike, but there's a lot of barriers to overcome,” Toon said. “Blowing up bombs is not a good one.”

Thermonuclear weapons could be used to warm the planet, but that might not be enough to warm it to “earthlike” levels, said Joshua Bandfield, an affiliate associate professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and a senior research scientist at the Boulder-based Space Science Institute.

And detonating nuclear weapons on Mars would change the terrain and make it harder to understand how the planet works, he said.

Another idea could be to use greenhouse gases to trap sunlight, which Musk mentioned as the slower way to warm the planet.

But while you could try to use carbon dioxide to warm up the atmosphere, the amount already existing on Mars is poisonous, making the environment potentially plant-friendly, but not suitable for animals, Toon said.

NASA was a little more coy about Musk's idea.

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In a statement, the space agency said, “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.”

Musk, who also heads electric auto manufacturer Tesla and is chairman of solar company SolarCity, has long been fascinated by Mars. SpaceX is hiring researchers knowledgeable about the Red Planet, including former NASA researcher Margarita Marinova, who co-authored a study on how best to terraform Mars. (If you don't read science fiction, that means creating a hospitable, earth-like environment for humans.)

This isn't the first unconventional idea Musk has come up with. Two years ago, he released a design for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system that would shoot passengers and freight between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a vacuum tube at speeds of up to 760 mph.

Here's some of the reaction on Twitter to Musk's idea about nuking Mars.

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