Sunday, February 21, 2016

Nuclear Devices in Space

Here is an essay that was written by one of the authors for a college course several months ago. We thought you might enjoy it though it might be better to just skim it. This paper was meant for an uninitiated audience.

Mars has long been a target of space colonization. This little planet is actually quite similar to Earth in many different ways. But in order for Mars to be a planet that is truly amenable to humans, that is, a place where people can go and walk in the Martian sun as one would on Earth, the planet has to be terraformed. Terraformation is the global engineering of a planet’s environment (Moss). In Mars’ case terraformation refers to the heating of the planet. Several methods for terraforming
Elon Musk with Stephen Colbert
Mars have been put forward. These ideas have included pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or dropping asteroids on the planet. But the concept which is now receiving the most attention is one referenced by Elon Musk on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. When Colbert asked what it would take to make Mars livable, Musk replied that “There are two ways, the fast way and the slow way.”(Colbert) The slow way was to use greenhouse gases to hasten global warming on Mars. The fast way was to drop thermonuclear weapons on the poles. It was the fast way which has received the attention.

In order for Mars to be the planet which humans leave Earth for, it will have to be terraformed. The use of nuclear weapons is one of the most practical methods of accomplishing the task. While technological challenges exist even with this approach, it will be the geopolitical and interplanetary ethics which will pose the greatest challenge to any type of Mars transformation.

Why is it that Musk believes that thermonuclear weapons would be ideal for terraforming Mars? The goal behind the plan is to create a runaway greenhouse effect on Mars. Mars is full of carbon dioxide. The tenuous atmosphere that exists there already is primarily carbon dioxide, and the poles are composed of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. Detonation of nuclear weapons over the poles is expected to heat them enough to release huge amounts more CO2 into the atmosphere. Ideally, this initial release of CO2 would heat the planet enough that more CO2 would be melted, and from that warming more still, continuously until all the dry ice has been melted and ejected into the atmosphere. From there plants can be introduced to convert the CO2 into oxygen. Nuclear weapons are ideal to start this process because they are understood, powerful and compact. Other options for starting the process of CO2 release require huge infrastructures and technologies which have not yet been developed.

However, even though the plan is feasible technologically it is almost insurmountable politically. The current Outer Space Treaty which is signed by most nuclear powers of the world, and all space powers, states that no weapons of mass destruction will be placed in space (United Nations). Basically, the global UN treaty prohibits nuclear weapons in space. There is a possibility that the treaty can be amended to allow thermonuclear devices to be deployed for the peaceful purposes of terraforming Mars. After all, peaceful applications of thermonuclear devices in space have never been a large consideration. Also, conveniently the treaty does not apply to individuals or companies, and may become even less of a factor.

A bill up for vote in the U.S. senate is set to give companies control of extracted materials from asteroids, (Fecht) even though the UN treaty states that no country may control any resources in space. The U.S. bill will set a precedent for private organizations to make decisions about space utilization outside of international treaties. The bill will also allow for the United States to develop local legislation to allow private organizations to decide the fate of Mars. So essentially, the U.S. may not be internationally allowed to unilaterally claim parts of space or Mars, but it can provide the resources to a private company, not bound by the treaty to terraform Mars. This all operates under the assumption that the Space Act of 2015 is ratified by Congress. But it does present the possibility that Elon Musk could obtain the means to terraform Mars with nuclear devices as a peaceful utilization of the devices without forcing the U.S. to break its treaty.

If the humanitarian effort to terraform Mars with nukes was ratified by the UN, or enabled by U.S. legislation, there would be multiple primary objections to the possibility, both are based on safety. In order to get to space one must take a rocket. Rockets, the world over, only have a success rate of, at best, 96 percent (Lafleur). What would occur if a rocket carrying a nuclear device exploded upon launch (Jauregui)? Also what should occur if terrorists or hackers hijack the device and point it back towards Earth. These are the concerns of a nuclear device being launched.

The latter argument is inconceivable. Such a device would have higher than normal military security. It would not be as if it is a basic laptop to be hacked. If the nuclear arsenal of the US has not been breached then neither will a rocket to Mars be compromised.

So, regarding the issue of a failure. This is a legitimate concern. But what few people realize is that there have already been multiple nuclear payloads sent into space. The Curiosity rover uses a radioactive device to power itself which would have disintegrated should it have exploded at launch. There have also been multiple SNAP-10A fission reactors launched since the 60’s (Bennett). Thus far there have been no accidents. But the reality is that even if one of these nuclear devices were to explode in the rocket the danger of radioactive fallout would be minimal. A nuclear blast creates dangerous fallout because it is able to eject decaying plutonium in all directions very energetically and evenly. A rocket exploding is a firecracker in comparison. The reactor and its contents would fall out of the sky and into the ocean, not spread like a plume across a continent. Overall, the dangers of safety are arguments similar to saying that we might get hit by a car if we cross the street, so one should never cross a street. It would not be negligent to attempt to launch a nuclear cargo to Mars.

So, assuming that nuclear devices have been approved to go to Mars and detonate, the next argument for the opposition would be that of the ecological impacts such an act would have on Mars itself (Jauregui). These objections stem from the idea that humans do not fully understand Mars yet. Mars has been considered one of the prime locations in the solar system to find life or remnants of life. Mars is theorized to have once been very earthlike, warm and wet. These theories lend credence to the idea that there are either fossilized or living organisms to find on Mars (Johnson). But should humans go and start nuking the planet, they could obliterate evidence of that past Martian life, or possibly even that life itself if it still exists. This issue can be likened to endangerment and human caused extinction of animals on Earth. The trouble is on Earth there are other resources, other solutions to deforestation, on Mars those options are limited because terraformation is required to even open the door to those other possibilities. Mars must be terraformed in order to provide a human presence that is capable of fully understanding and studying the planet. This cannot be achieved with rovers, but it can with humans.

There exists the possibility that small colonies will be established before the planet is terraformed. The stations would conduct the science to prepare the planet for the terraformation and design the process. While performing these studies scientists would be able to conduct the final surveys for life. If found, the organisms can be protected from the terraformation process so that they can be fully studied. In this way the transformation of the planet will not eliminate any potential existing residents, and the scientific value of those organisms can be viably and organically retained.

Mars is generally touted as a second planet for humans, to ensure that if a life ending event occurs
on one planet the other will preserve the human race. Should initial preparation and study of the planet not be performed the terraformation should continue. It is not appropriate to put the protection of a hypothetical organism or fossil ahead of the actual dangers posed to the fully conscious and creating organisms that are human. Some would say that the dangers to Earth are of the same probability of getting hit by a car while crossing a street, which I presented previously, therefore why should Mars be colonized out of fear. To this let us be clear, if human protection was the only reason then there would be no interest in Mars. Humans can’t fight the urge of a donut even though it could kill them. The idea of a multi-planetary society extends far beyond survival as a benefit. These include solving problems such as population density, political oppression, and economic growth. A new planet allows humans to develop in ways that we have never seen since Europeans started coming over to the Americas. Mars is bare ground for people to create a new start. The colonization must occur for human progress to continue. That is indeed more valuable than a scientific curiosity which may or may not exist, and would still be able to be studied even after the terraformation. The development of the human race is also a hypothetical which is justified through the data of history and how expansion has improved quality of life but also scientific and economic ability to protect and understand environmental issues.

Elon Musk is a marketing genius. He often drops hints and ideas in order to improve visibility of projects he is working on. But he is also a proven achiever of lofty goals. He already operates several technology companies, one of which provides orbital rockets to service the International Space Station. When Elon Musk states that nuclear weapons are a viable method for preparing Mars for human colonization, it is generally a well substantiated belief and even future plan he is working on (Masunaga). Terraforming a planet with nuclear devices is a possibility (, and though there are hypothetically-based concerns about it, none of them are legitimate enough to prohibit the plan. The primary issue with actually implementing it will be the fears of what may occur on Earth, either due to potential political backlash or a failure of the vehicle carrying the devices failing. It is possible that the political hurdles can be overcome and the other is a concern based on hyperbole. Nuclear devices can and should be used to prepare another planet for human development.

 Bennett, Gary. "Space Nuclear Power: Opening the Final Frontier." 4th International Energy Conversion Engineering Conference and Exhibit (IECEC) (2006). Print.

"Citation Machine Automatically Generates Citations in MLA, APA, Chicago, Turabian, and Harvard." Citation Machine: Format & Generate Citations รข€“ APA, MLA, & Chicago. Imagine Easy Solutions. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Colbert, Stephen. "Elon Musk Might Be A Super Villain." YouTube. YouTube, 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

 Fecht, Sarah. "Is Space Mining Legal?" Popular Science. Popular Science, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

 Jauregui, Andres. "Sorry, Elon Musk: One Does Not Simply Nuke Mars Into Habitability." Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Johnson, Carolyn. "Ancient Lake on Mars Could Be a Prime Target in Search for Life - The Boston Globe." Boston Globe, 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

 Lafleur, Claude. "Spacecraft Stats and Insights." The Space Review:. The Space Review, 5 Apr. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

 Masunaga, Samantha. "What Scientists Say about Elon Musk's Idea to Nuke Mars." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Moss, Shaun. "Terraforming Mars." Mars Papers (2006). Print.

"SNAP-10A." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

"United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs." Outer Space Treaty. United Nations Office of Space Affairs, 19 Dec. 1966. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

 "Why Elon Musk's 'nuking Mars' Idea Isn't All That Far-fetched." 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.


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