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Elon Musk says we should nuke Mars: Is terraforming the Red Planet wise?

The billionaire's off-the-cuff remarks on 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' has reignited scientific debate about altering the climate on Mars to be more supportive of human life.

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    This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle above the 'Buckskin' rock target, where the mission collected its seventh drilled sample.
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Elon Musk says there is a fast way and a slow way to warm up Mars to make it habitable for humans.

On Wednesday night on “The Late Show,” host Stephen Colbert wanted to know the fast way.

“Drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles,” the eccentric billionaire told him with a nod.

The apparently off-the-cuff remark was not entirely off the mark. Even NASA scientists believe that it is technologically possible to create considerable global climate changes on Mars to make it more Earth-like.

But it’s certainly no easy task. And scientists were quick to challenge Mr. Musk’s proposal.

"Terraforming Mars has been considered and discussed for a long time," Jason Smerdon, associate research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told US News and World Report. "I nevertheless would be cautious about our ability to terraform and manage another planet when we struggle so mightily with the practical and preventative measures that are vitally needed to maintain our own."

Michael Mann, a professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, told US News that if and when that day comes, the theory goes like this:

If you suddenly transform all the ice at Mars’ poles into water vapor, you might be able to put enough of that vapor into the atmosphere to get what’s known as a “runaway positive feedback,” Mann explains, creating a climate warm enough to eventually support “permanent oceans and a moisture-laden atmosphere.”

Of course, this strategy is far from certain and carries significant risks. The resulting radiation from the bombs might make the planet uninhabitable or its native water unusable. The worst-case scenario is that it leads to a nuclear winter by kicking up so much dust and particles that they block out of the sun.

But there are other options, according to Nature World Reports. Greenhouses gases could be released slowly on Mars to help trap heat in the planet’s atmosphere. Other farfetched ideas include spreading black powder on the polar caps to absorb heat or smashing an asteroid into the poles. 

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