Is Elon Musk Right? Should We Nuke Mars?
Elon Musk’s plan to nuke the poles of Mars to transform it into a new Earth seems totally insane, but could it actually work?
Elon Musk is a divisive man. To some, he is a visionary, to others he is out of his depth. But even if you are a devout follower of Musk, you have to admit that when he declared last August that we should ‘Nuke Mars!’ to terraform it into a habitable Earth-like planet it was his most outlandish, if not bizarre idea yet! But is this the ravings of a madman or an ingenious shot at interplanetary colonisation?
Firstly, how would nuking Mars transform it from a desolate cold planet with a thin atmosphere to a second Earth?
Well, luckily Musk has since elaborated on what he means. He wants to detonate nuclear devices on Mars’s poles, vaporising its’ frozen ice caps, releasing a colossal amount of water vapour and CO² into the Martian atmosphere. This will cause a runaway greenhouse effect. As the temperature rises due to the greenhouse gasses released by the explosions, the Martian rocks will heat up and outgas more CO², which heats the planet more, releasing more CO² and so on.
This would lead to a world that has a temperature similar to Earth, with a much thicker atmosphere and liquid water. All we would need to do to complete the transformation is to get a few plants to pump out some oxygen and hey presto! We have a new Earth.
So Musk plan is to ‘nuke Mars’ and create a veritable garden of Eden for Musk to rule over.
Okay maybe omit the ruling part, but you get the picture. Use nuclear weapons to release the resources on Mars that can do all the terraforming work for us! Sounds great, doesn’t it? We send a few nuclear weapons to Mars, wait, and then you get a second Earth.
Only, Musk may have rushed into this one without thinking it through. What a shocker! There are quite a few flaws with this terraforming plan of his.
Firstly, the number of nuclear devices needed is astronomical. Estimates say that you would need over 10,000 of the largest nuclear warheads to pull off such a move. Considering the world only has a stockpile of some 13,000, it might be difficult for Musk to get his hands on these bombs, let alone transport them to Mars! (But could inadvertently end mutually assured destruction).
Secondly, when you detonate a lot of nuclear weapons, you are at risk of causing a Nuclear Winter. The explosion would cause dust and debris to get kicked up into the atmosphere. Mars’ high wind speed will keep it there for years, blocking out the Sun, just like the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. This causes the temperature on the surface to plummet! This causes the released greenhouse gasses to be re-absorbed as all the water freezes, leaving Mars potentially colder than when we started.
Thirdly, radiation. You see, Mars has no magnetic field or Ozone layer. This means the surface is bare to the killer radiation of the Sun. Despite Mars’s cold temperature, the UV and cosmic radiation there is far above that of Earth’s, you’d need some pretty powerful suncream there.
If you then nuked it the levels of radiation whizzing about the planet would be catastrophically high. Radioactive fallout would littler the whole planet effectively poisoning the soil, water and air to prevent any form of life. This is especially bad when you take into account that the surface already has radiation levels deemed unsafe for human habitation. So, if you want to live somewhere, don’t blow it up with nuclear weapons first! You don’t see Chernobyl real-estate in high demand for this very reason.
So I think you’d agree, it might be a bad idea to make this radiation even worse.
On the topic of Mars’ magnetic field, even if this terraforming were successful, Mars wouldn’t be habitable for long. Its low gravity, and lack of magnetosphere means that the radiation from the Sun strips the atmosphere away at an alarming rate. This is why Mars has a thin atmosphere and very little water; it was all lost to space billions of years ago as to solar wind stripped away the atmosphere and water vapour.
So even if this outlandish scheme worked, it isn’t exactly a long term solution.
Finally, we come to the enormous problem with Musk’s plan. Recent analysis shows that there isn’t enough CO² in the poles to cause the significant climate change that is needed to trigger the runaway effect. Furthermore, all the water vapour released, which would act as a greenhouse gas and the seeds for future Mars oceans, would either be lost to space or condense out of the atmosphere very soon after the explosions. In short, Mars doesn’t have the resources to terraform itself; we need to bring the materials necessary to do so to the planet.
Humankind isn’t powerful enough yet to even consider changing a planet to our needs.
Elon is missing this point. To turn Mars into something even remotely Earth-like, you need to do a lot more than just warm it up. You have to: reduce the toxicity of the atmosphere; introduce oxygen; increase the volume of H²O reduce the toxicity of the soil; reduce levels of cosmic radiation and stop the new denser atmosphere from being blown away by solar winds. None of these things can be solved with a ‘big-old bomb!’
There is also the possibility that Mars has a population of indigenous organisms. If we were to detonate even one nuclear device, let alone 10,000, we could wipe them out. Is it morally correct to wipe out possibly the only other aliens in the universe to make a new home for us? Even if those aliens are just single-celled basic life.
I can’t speak for you, but I can’t justify it.
Or is Musk actually trying to achieve something else here? Am I reading far too much into this? (Wouldn’t be the first time).
After all, Musk is the king of clever marketing (look at Tesla and their $0 marketing budget). Maybe the point of this isn’t to actually nuke Mars, but instead, get people excited about the possibilities of Mars. Let me explain.
Musk himself has said that his latest rocket called StarShip will take us to Mars and set up a permanent base there. His concept art for this project even includes the biodomes needed for such a mission. But, if you already have a permanent base on Mars, why then nuke the planet to oblivion? You wouldn’t, it is counter-productive. So, I personally don’t think Musk actually wants to nuke Mars.
Instead, Musk’s insistence that we can nuke the planet better, gets people excited and talking about his projects. This makes people more excited about Mars and discussing better ways to terraform the planet. All of this combined means more people will want to be a part of Musk’s StarShip voyages to the Red Planet.
Basically, what I am doing right here is precisely what Musk wants. I’m discrediting his wild claims all while getting you excited for his trips to Mars! Meanwhile, he has spent zero money on getting that message out.
If this is the intention behind Musks’ nuking tweets, then he must be a genius. Just a genius we should keep an eye on in case he ever does get his hands on 10,000 nuclear weapons.
Either way, Musk and his dogged persistence might eventually get us to Mars. It won’t be a comfortable life, but if his base succeeds, he will become the Martian’s founding father. All the free marketing that has spewed forth from his ‘out there’ Tweets will help him reach that goal.
So no, Musk wasn’t right in saying that we should detonate nuclear weapons on Mars, it just wouldn’t work. But it got us talking about his plans for Mars, didn’t it? And Musk is one of the few people genuinely striving to make us an interplanetary species.
That is where the true excitement lies; we haven’t discovered a brilliant solution to fix Mars in one go, but we are living in a time where people are preparing to explore the planet that has tantalised us for centuries. That makes now one of the most exciting times to be alive! So, do still dream of Mars, but be thankful that it will be biospheres and bases rather than a nuclear holocaust.