From selling 20,000 flamethrowers over the internet to causing mass panic in the stock market and launching a sports car into Earth’s orbit, Elon Musk has a knack for creating controversy.
The tech mogul, who has been a longtime advocate for the development and colonization of Mars, resurrected a 2015 proposal to warm up and terraform the Red Planet by blasting it with nuclear weapons.
If it were not for Musk’s history of similarly unusual assertions, the idea of using weapons of mass destruction to develop a planet would seem closer to science-fiction than reality.
Caleb Hobbs, sophomore biochemistry major. said the idea of using nuclear detonations on Mars is concerning.
“If the plan is to make the planet more hospitable toward human life, I don’t think radiation poisoning would help,” Hobbs said.
That rationale for using something as destructive as nuclear weapons to pave the way for future civilizations seems counterintuitive, but Musk’s hypothesis may not be entirely wrong.
Dr. Mario Oyanader, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, said the science is there.
“It’s doable—no question,” Oyanader said. The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere would create a greenhouse effect, causing the surrounding area to warm. “It would be very effective. But those nuclear residuals stay around longer than we do, and that’s the problem,” he added.
Aside from the larger issues such as residual radiation, Oyanader said the planet’s weak atmosphere would eventually release the gases and heat into outerspace.
In addition, the volatility of the nuclear blasts would alter the landscape of the planet, and managing its terrain is another question entirely.
For that SpaceX and its partners would need to aquire sustained micro-reactions to find the optimal energy and blast radius for each detonation.
NASA’s own 2018 research debunked part of Musk’s original nuclear option—and said terraforming the planet—at least with today’s technology—was not possible. Combined with the prospect of heat escaping from Mars’ atmosphere, the scientific community said logistically, the plan is concerning.
Those concerns fall in line with the details of Musk’s proposal, yet the SpaceX CEO was quick to note that there are other less extreme technological alternatives.
One of those alternatives is using heat from the sun. Solar reflectors on satellites would melt ice caps on the planet and also create a greenhouse effect.
In the long term, the reflectors would be a consistent method to keep heat contained in the atmosphere, but the time frame for raising the temperature would be significantly longer than an instantaneous blast and comes with a steep price tag.
Finding the optimal placement for these reflectors would present an even greater challenge because of the challenges during their launch into the planet’s orbit. Even then, they are not capable of reforming Mars’ landscape as Musk originally planned.
Oyanader said he believes a good way to raise support would be through smaller-scale experiments, along with some trial and error.
The process of solving a complicated problem is in many ways similar to solving an exam question. “Find all the avenues you have and then tackle one of them,” Oyanader said.
Musk has not stated a final position on the concept, only releasing his thoughts on Twitter; however, this is not the first time he has used his social media platform to gain support for his plans.
In 2017, he famously created his own underground road tunneling company, ironically named the Boring Company, after he routinely complained about traffic around his Los Angeles office. Only for this idea, he has his own “Nuke Mars” T-shirts to market to his nearly 30 million Twitter followers.
Miles Ward, sophomore business administration major, said that in terms of marketing ideas to the public, Musk is one of the best.
His connection with internet culture and oftentimes chaotic personality make him a magnet for the internet’s social media buzz.
“Even when we hear about crazy ideas from him, he still manages to rally his followers and grab headlines,” Ward said.
Regardless of how good he is at influencing the public through social media, Musk will have to rally the scientific community, which has in the past been reluctant to jump on board with his newest “out of this world” ideas.