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Terraform Mars: After Inspiration4, Elon Musk hints at his long-term goal

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reiterated his support for terraforming Mars, as part of his long-term goal to make humanity into a multi-planetary species.

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Elon Musk doesn’t just want to build a city on Mars — he wants to terraform the planet.

On Sunday, the day after SpaceX’s all-civilian mission to orbit returned to Earth, the CEO took to Twitter to suggest that he’s still got his sights set on the long-term goal of making Mars a more Earth-like world. In response to a post about Mars temperatures, which claimed the average surface temperature is around minus 63 degrees Celsius (minus 82 degrees Fahrenheit), Musk responded: “Needs a little warming up.”

The comments hint at Musk’s goal, stated multiple times over the years, that he would like to transform the planet’s atmosphere to make it more hospitable to human life. It forms part of his overall goal with SpaceX: reduce spaceflight costs, use it to establish permanent human presences elsewhere in space, and transform humanity into a multi-planetary species.

In the wake of the Inspiration4 mission, it’s a reminder that Musk wants to do more than send private citizens into space for orbital trips.

It’s also a goal that, while likely far into the future, Musk may take more seriously than many suggest. SpaceX’s lobby even shows images of Mars before and after terraforming.

An image of a terraformed Mars, as seen in SpaceX's lobby.Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Eric Berger, Ars Technica senior space editor, told Inverse in April 2021 that Musk is someone that makes bold statements that are more serious than they first appear. This was evident with the plan to declare Mars a free planet, nestled in the Starlink terms of service, described by legal experts as “gibberish.”

“When he thinks he's right, he thinks he's right, and he's going to charge ahead,” Berger said. “It's definitely a near-term issue and controversy. I think the terms of service were one of the first shots fired in that.”

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Terraform Mars: What Elon Musk wants to achieve

Musk has outlined over the years how humanity could terraform Mars. One idea is to heat the stores of frozen carbon dioxide in the planet’s poles, releasing gas so that humans can move around the planet with just a breathing apparatus. Humanity could use continuous, low fallout nuclear explosions to simulate artificial suns. Musk summed up this plan in 2019: “Nuke Mars.”

However, the plan has received criticism. Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Christopher S. Edwards of Northern Arizona University argued in a 2018 paper that there are not enough frozen stores to create a workable atmosphere.

The paper, published in Nature Astronomy, claimed that these stores would only release about 15 millibars of atmospheric pressure. Earth, by contrast, has around 1,000 millibars of pressure. Musk responded to this paper by arguing there is a “massive amount” of carbon dioxide adsorbed into the soil.

But SpaceX has several steps to go before it can reach this stage:

  • It aims to build the Starship, a fully-reusable rocket designed to send humans to Mars, and host the first orbital flight this year
  • The first humans could reach Mars in the Starship by the mid-2020s
  • From there, Musk wants to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars by 2050

Musk may be serious about his long-term dream, but even he admitted in November 2020 that terraforming would be “too slow to be relevant in our lifetime.”

But just like how Inspiration4 paved the way for these more ambitious projects, Musk may continue to push for terraforming as an ultimate goal.

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