Why Elon Musk's 'nuking Mars' idea isn't all that far-fetched

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

"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.

Musk told Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show", "There's the fast way, and the slow way. The fast way is drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles."

SEE MORE: Elon Musk suggests nuking Mars to make it habitable

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' atmosphere is very different from Earth's.

Click through to see incredible shots of the sunset on Mars:

Sunset on Mars, Mars rover, Curiosity, NASA
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Why Elon Musk's 'nuking Mars' idea isn't all that far-fetched
(Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Rover Takes Self Portrait

(Photo: NASA/Flickr)

Curiosity Parachute Landing Spotted by NASA Orbiter [detail]

(Photo via NASA/Flickr)

IN SPACE - SEPTEMBER 2: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, and captured by NASA's Curiosity rover, a rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface that is elsewhere blanketed by reddish-brown dust, showing evidence for an ancient, flowing stream, September 2, 2012. The fractured Link outcrop has blocks of exposed, clean surfaces. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. Many gravel-sized rocks have eroded out of the outcrop onto the surface, particularly in the left portion of the frame. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of clasts of this size. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - SEPTEMBER 14: This handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, and captured by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows evidence for an ancient, flowing stream at the rock outcrop pictured here September 14, 2012, and a few other sites on Mars, which the science team has named 'Hottah' after Hottah Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate. Scientists theorize that the bedrock was disrupted in the past, giving it the titled angle, most likely via impacts from meteorites. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
MARS - SEPTEMBER 19: In this handout from NASA/JPL-Caltech, a rock that is approximately 10 inches (25 centimeters) tall and 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide sits in front of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity September 19, 2012 on Mars. According to NASA, the rover team chose the rock, that has been named Jake Matijevic, as the first taget to be examined by Curiosity's contact instruments. Jake Matijevic was a surface operations systems chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory Project and the Curiosity rover. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - FEBRUARY 3: In this handout image provided by NASA, a self-portrait of the Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on February 3, 2013 on the planet Mars. Curiosity landed on the planet on August 5, 2012. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
These are the first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface from the Navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover's 'head' or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground. The topography of the rim is very mountainous due to erosion. The ground seen in the middle shows low-relief scarps and plains. The foreground shows two distinct zones of excavation likely carved out by blasts from the rover's descent stage thrusters. (NASA/MCT via Getty Images)

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.

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.

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

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.

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."

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