In fairness, it's not exactly something I wouldn't expect from an eccentric billionaire who's already demonstrated a penchant for flamethrowers, mad science projects, and throwing things at other planets, but it's still a bit of a "wait, what?" moment when you log in to Twitter and see Elon Musk saying, in no uncertain terms, "Nuke Mars!"
I imagine this as a just-before-bed type of tweet, the last thing he knows he needs to leave with the world before slipping off into dreamland. It's not out of the blue though, Elon has been harping on this for a few years now. Paul Seaburn covered Musk's itchy nuclear trigger finger for Mysterious Universe the first time it reared its ridiculous head. Of all the ideas to not get bored with the minute you tweet it out, though, I wouldn't have pegged nuking Mars as one with any real staying power. Yet here we are.
So what's the deal here? Why are we nuking Mars? Should we nuke Mars? Have we nuked Mars already? Well we haven't yet and it's doubtful that we ever will, but funnily enough there is a real idea here beyond two ridiculous syllables and an exclamation point.
Elon Musk is one of the billionaires in the new space race, alongside other probable supervillains like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, and Elon's whole gimmick is the colonization and terraforming of Mars. As a new home for humanity, Mars has some pros and cons. One the pro side, it's another rock. That's about it. On the con side, Mars has no real atmosphere, no liquid water, and it's really, really cold. In order to have anyone actually want to live on Mars, we'd need to terraform it. So what's the tried and true method of taking a barren wasteland and transforming it into a habitable paradise? Drop a couple thermonuclear warheads on that bad boy. That'll do it.
At least, Elon Musk thinks it will. The idea is that we could hit Mars' poles with some nuclear weapons and the explosions would free up the carbon dioxide trapped in the Martian dirt. If we nuke mars enough, the totally-not-mad scientist postulates, we could release enough carbon dioxide to, through the greenhouse effect, warm up Mars' surface temperature to that of Earth's. Musk said in 2015:
“So if you have two basically tiny suns over the pole, that would warm up the planet. Then, you would gasify frozen carbon dioxide, thicken the atmosphere and warm up the water and all of that would have a greenhouse effect, a cascading effect, to continue warming up the planet.”
A NASA study last year concluded that there simply isn't enough carbon dioxide on Mars to have the effect that Musk hopes for. In response, Musk said:
"There’s a massive amount of CO2 on Mars adsorbed into soil that’d be released upon heating. With enough energy via artificial or natural (sun) fusion, you can terraform almost any large, rocky body."
In other words, "Nah bro, I'm gonna nuke mars."
But Elon Musk has always known the power of the ridiculous. If you say ridiculous things people pay attention and you can get your foot in the door with a actual plan, like with numbers and stuff. Also, saying ridiculous things is a great way to sell t-shirts. Also, Elon Musk is going to sell "Nuke Mars!" t-shirts.