We Asked Astrobiologists About Jose Canseco's Plan to Terraform Mars

Former slugger Jose Canseco has been doing some very important math the last couple days.
December 11, 2015, 6:56pm
Images: NASA/Department of Energy/Bryan Horowitz/Flickr

Former baseball superstar and finger auctioneer Jose Canseco says he has solved one of the most difficult atmospheric engineering problems conceived of by man: Terraforming the planet Mars to make it habitable for humans.

Canseco—whose math credentials include counting from zero to $45,580,000 (in total earnings) during his 16-year career and then counting back down to -$1.7 million while bankrupting himself—has calculated that if humans launched nuclear missiles at Mars's polar ice caps, the ice would melt and form an ocean 36 feet deep across the planet.

By my calculations if we nuked the polar ice caps on Mars we would make an ocean of 36 feet deep across the whole planet.
— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) December 11, 2015

He also wants to do this:

And then it appears that redirecting Saturn's moon Triton to collide into Mars could make the planet habitable faster
— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) December 11, 2015

Yes i DID think about the missing magnetic field. It is created when the Triton collision liquidates Mars outer core into molten iron.
— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) December 11, 2015

Which is even crazier than you're probably thinking, for reasons we'll get to in a minute.

Canseco has dropped plenty of scientific philosophy and ramblings on Twitter before (almost none of it makes any sense), but my guess is he didn't come up with this idea independently. Canseco and his management did not return Motherboard requests for comment, but one could hazard a guess that Canseco's nuke Mars idea is actually SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's nuke Mars idea.

Musk told Stephen Colbert earlier this fall that nuking Mars would allow the planet to heat up, and later elaborated at a Solar City event, saying that exploding nuclear bombs above Mars's poles would create two miniature suns that would turn trapped frozen carbon dioxide on the planet into a gas that's capable of trapping heat.

"A lot of people don't appreciate that our sun is a large fusion explosion," Musk said.

The astrobiologist who did get back to me didn't want to be quoted by name because it's so insane

Nuking Mars makes sense in theory but is highly infeasible in the near-mid future because carrying a bomb large enough to the planet would be extremely expensive and difficult. Launching anything to space is quite dangerous—strapping a nuclear warhead large enough to melt the ice on Mars increases the danger level quite a bit. It's true that there is a lot of ice on Mars—a 2006 study suggested that there's enough icepack on Mars to cover the planet with 35 meters worth of ice (and a nontrivial-but-still-uncalculated-except-by-Canseco amount of liquid water should it all be melted).

I reached out to five astrobiologists who have at least discussed the possibility of terraforming Mars, and only one got back to me. The astrobiologist who did get back to me didn't want to be quoted by name because it's so insane, but told me that the idea of "moving Triton" is totally nuts—and oh, by the way, Triton is a moon of Neptune, not of Saturn. Moving a moon is not something that's easily done, especially when the vague plan is to have the giant celestial body traverse the orbits of Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the whole of the asteroid belt before ultimately having it crash into a planet.

Update: Jim Kasting, an atmospheric evolutionary biologist at Penn State, has gotten back to me about Canseco's plan:

"Hmm, very interesting! I checked out all four of Canseco's tweets. Turns out he is right about the first one. Wikipedia reports an amount of polar ice that would be equivalent to about 10 m of water planet-wide on Mars. An even higher estimate is provided by Villanueva et al. (Science, 2015), who estimate about 20 m of water globally from the ice in the polar layered deposits in each hemisphere.

Bring ammonia to Mars wouldn't do much for the climate, as NH3 quickly photolyzes to produce N2 and H2. The H2 is then lost to space, so the nitrogen would end up mostly as N2.

And it's unlikely that colliding Triton into Mars at any velocity could melt Mars' core and restart the magnetic dynamo. Triton is about 1/30th of Mars' mass, so most of the energy of the collision would likely go into vaporizing Triton itself, along with a fair chunk of Mars' mantle. I doubt if the core would be greatly affected."