Sorry, Elon Musk: One Does Not Simply Nuke Mars Into Habitability

"It is silly to expect Mars to become easily habitable."

Elon Musk says the fast track to terraforming Mars involves dropping nuclear weapons on the planet's poles to warm it up.

The billionaire inventor and business magnate appeared on "The Late Show" Wednesday to talk about Tesla, SpaceX and other forward-thinking ventures he leads. When pressed by host Stephen Colbert about a "fast way" to making Mars into an Earth-like planet, Musk offered the method, "drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.

(Art: Eva Hill)

"You're a supervillain! That's what a supervillain does!" Colbert replied.

Although the plan might sound like one of Superman archenemy Lex Luthor's evil schemes, some scientists have suggested terraforming Mars with thermonuclear explosions. But other leading scientists have strong reservations about the idea, they told The Huffington Post.

Musk is eager to send humans to Mars, and while he told Colbert that he thinks nuking the poles would be the quickest way to make it habitable, he did indicate there were other options.

The "slow" option would involve warming the planet by pumping greenhouse gasses into its thin atmosphere. But some experts, like theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, have criticized that approach as too expensive to be feasible.

In 2011, Kaku proposed hydrogen bombs as an alternate catalyst for creating a runaway greenhouse effect on the Red Planet.

Kaku said that using nuclear weapons -- or perhaps less destructively, nuclear power plants -- to raise the Mars' temperature a few degrees could help jumpstart a "chain reaction" of warming that would ultimately thicken the planet's atmosphere and make it more Earth-like.

Such an approach would be cheaper than the alternative of planting greenhouse gas factories on Mars in order to terraform it, Kaku said, since it utilizes carbon dioxide that's already present in Martian soil, which would be released via thermonuclear blast.

HuffPost asked several leading scientists about the nuclear option for Mars. None of them seemed convinced that nuking the planet from orbit was the best path to terraforming, even if Musk considers it the quickest.

"To begin with, there are the attendant dangers of bolting nuclear devices to rockets and hoping they don’t crash and burn here on Earth," Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, said in an email. (One of SpaceX's rockets exploded shortly after liftoff in June. Musk later called the failed launch "a really important lesson.")

"There’s also the damage you might do to still-unknown life on the Red Planet. And, of course, there would likely be political fallout of the non-radioactive kind."

Shostak also pointed out that for all the effort, there's also the chance that the bombs would fail to generate the desired runaway greenhouse effect.

"Nuclear explosions, as photogenic as they are, are transient. A few weeks after the megaton mushrooms, Mars might just revert to its former, inhospitable self," he said.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physics professor at Arizona State University, dismissed the notion of quickly terraforming Mars as "wildly speculative."

"It is silly to expect Mars to become easily habitable," Krauss said. "In the near term, other than some astronauts who don't mind dying on Mars, I think the rest of us are stuck on Earth."

Although the physics behind Musk's plan haven't been worked out fully, modern science may hold the key to making it work -- or at least curtailing the adverse effects of nuclear fallout.

Thermonuclear weapons can be designed to leave very little fallout, Michael Shara, curator of the American Museum of Natural History's astrophysics department, told NBC News. Regions nuked in the name of terraforming could pose little risk to life mere centuries after they were hit, he said.

Shostak has a different idea: Freon.

"Throw old refrigerators at Mars with their load of Freon -- a very efficient greenhouse gas. The Freon would stay in the atmosphere, keeping the temperatures warm and the polar caps at least partially melted," Shostak said. "Yes, Freon is mildly toxic if you have high concentrations... [But] I’d rather have a bit of Freon in the atmosphere than nuclear radiation from a bomb."

This video from The Verge outlines some of the challenges of terraforming Mars, and potential ways to overcome them. It does not consider nuking Mars from orbit.

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