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Why Musk's 'Nuking Mars' Idea Isn't All That Far-Fetched

Elon Musk's comment to Stephen Colbert was great for sensational headlines, but there is some science behind the idea of thermonuclear terraforming.
Posted at 10:31 AM, Sep 11, 2015

"Elon Musk Wants To Nuke Mars": It sounds like a headline generator is having a field day, but that is more or less the first step the inventor proposes in getting Mars ready for human colonization.

Elon Musk: "There's the fast way, and the slow way."

Stephen Colbert: "OK, give me the fast way."

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

Colbert: "You're a supervillain." (Video via CBS / "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert")

The explosions themselves aren't going to do much to change the climate, and that doesn't seem to be Musk's idea. But thermonuclear detonations could vaporize the carbon dioxide stored in Mars' ice caps, which could in turn help jump-start the planet's greenhouse effect.

In other words, Mars needs more of this. That doesn't sound much better than nuking it, does it? But Mars' amosphere is very different from Earth's. (Video via Videoblocks)

First, there's not much of it left. It used to be thicker, but solar wind and the sun's own magnetic field are thought to have stripped it away. (Video via NASA)

Now, what remains is about 100 times thinner than the atmosphere of Earth, and 95 percent CO2. 

Average temperatures are roughly equivalent to Antarctica in winter. And there are no penguins, as far as we know. To the best of our knowledge, the only things running around on Mars are the robots we send there. (Video via PBSNASA)

Anyway, while "runaway greenhouse warming" is bad news here on Earth, it could be a good thing for a Mars terraforming project. (Video via NASA)

NASA says releasing more greenhouse gases is actually one of the fastest ways to boost Mars' surface temperature enough to support liquid surface water.

"Fast" here being relative. It would still take decades to get temperatures and pressures up to human-friendly levels, and probably centuries before the surface could support plants or animals or Matt Damon. (Video via 20th Century Fox)

And NASA isn't too keen on the nuclear jump-start idea. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, it 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." (Video via U.S. Army)

This video includes images from NASA. Music by Frenic / CC BY 3.0.