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Should we drop nuclear bombs on Mars? Why Elon Musk says yes. (+video)

Space X's CEO shared a novel idea with Stephen Colbert on CBS last night. Is he serious? 

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    Elon Musk introduces the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at the SpaceX headquarters in 2014. Last night, Musk shared further ideas on how to colonize Mars.
    Jae C. Hong/AP/File
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The prospect of traveling to Mars has been on the table for decades, but never before has it seemed so attainable.

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp and Tesla Motors Inc., won’t rest until he sees a colony on Mars. “Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease,” said Mr. Musk in an interview with Aeon Magazine.

But Wednesday night, Musk made even more drastic comments on CBS's “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

Recommended: Man and Mars through history

For humans to exist on Mars, the "fixer upper of a planet" would need to be made more Earth-like, accomplished by jump-starting climate change. According to Musk, there are two ways to do this: introduce greenhouse gasses or “drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.”

The latter is preferable, Musk says, because it’s quicker, and Musk is all about speed.

Musk says in just two to three years, humans could be transported into space by SpaceX rockets and that by 2020, people could be traveling to Mars. That’s an estimate that beats NASA’s by ten years.

So is Musk just crazy or is this viable?

Well, every 26 months, a trip to the Red Planet becomes much easier. The orbital differences between Mars and Earth fluctuate significantly, and at its furthest, Mars is a thousand times further from Earth than the moon. But every 26 months, the two planets align, and then Mars is only 150 times further than the moon. A mere 36 million miles away.

By 2040, Musk believes SpaceX will be poised, essentially, to change the future of humanity. “If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people,” Musk told Aeon Magazine.

Extreme Tech’s John Hewitt, engineer and neuroscientist, is skeptical. “The problem is that at planetary scales, even with nukes, terraforming is like designing a new Tesla with a lodestone compass where the fancy new GPS console should be — it will look ridiculous when you try to resell it,” he says.

“A few well-placed nukes may inject some heat or alter radiative transfer. But unless you are willing to coexist with an ongoing barrage of nukes every time the climate doesn’t behave, you should probably steer clear of the Mars signup sheet.”

Despite opposition, Musk isn’t slowing down. “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonize the whole Solar System,” Musk told Aeon’s Ross Andersen. “But the key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization. That’s the next step."

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