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Sorry, Elon Musk: NASA says plans to terraform Mars won't work

Making Mars habitable has been a staple of science fiction, which is where scientists say it will have to stay.

The Red Planet is not going to be green anytime soon.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk famously told late night host Stephen Colbert of his hope to use thermonuclear explosions to jump-start the creation of a Martian atmosphere that might support life. But new research backed by NASA finds that even nuking the Red Planet won't be enough to convert it into another Earth.

The basic idea behind making Mars habitable, also known as "terraforming," is to release enough of the carbon dioxide trapped in the planet's surface to thicken the atmosphere, heating up the planet enough to keep water in a liquid state. It's literally the same greenhouse effect that is also driving climate change on our planet right now. 

"Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) are the only greenhouse gases that are likely to be present on Mars in sufficient abundance to provide any significant greenhouse warming," said Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a release.

Jakosky is lead author of a new study published on Monday in Nature Astronomy that concludes there just isn't enough of those gases trapped at Mars to get the job done. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is less than one percent that of Earth's, which is likely what would be needed to raise temperatures enough for stable liquid water.

Even if Musk were able to melt the polar ice caps with nuclear technology, the new research says they would only release enough CO2 to bring the atmospheric pressure to 1.2 percent of Earth's. 

"In addition, most of the CO2 gas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology," said Jakosky.


A breakdown of the challenges to terraforming Mars.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The analysis shows that even going through an energy-intensive process of CO2 extraction from the planet's dust, soils and minerals still only gets the atmosphere to about 5 percent of where it needs to be.

We've reached out to SpaceX and will update if they comment.

Surface features on Mars suggest that the planet was once warmer and wetter eons ago, but research from spacecraft on and around Mars in recent years have shown that much of the planet's atmosphere and its moisture were lost to space in ancient times. 

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This doesn't necessarily mean that the dream of living on Mars is dead, but it does suggest that the Red Planet's most important industry could be selling and maintaining reliable spacesuits.

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