‘Meteor Bombardment of Mars’ is chapter 30 of Insights from the Future, a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. THIS IS NOT NEWS; IT IS A PROJECTION OF FUTURE NEWS. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes.
February 26, 2043
Operation Breathless started with a bang today with a 500-meter asteroid hitting Mars near Mons Olympus. A big bang, rather — equivalent to about five million megatons of TNT, according to SpaceX scientists — as this morning at 6:33 Mars local time, Asteroid 2033 A2 slammed into the eastern slopes of the tallest mountains in the solar system.
It’s just the first step in a very long journey, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says. One that will last, in fact, longer than Musk himself will live.
The goal is to eventually enable humans to breath freely on the surface of Mars, which has only about 1% of the atmospheric pressure of earth. Plus, it’s largely poisonous carbon dioxide, and generally colder than a bad winter’s day in Siberia. Crash enough water-heavy ice asteroids and comets into Mars, the theory goes, and you’ll not only warm up the place, you’ll also add enough hydrogen, nitrogen, and especially oxygen to the atmosphere to make it breathable.
Or, if not exactly breathable, at least higher pressure, so that humans can travel freely on Mars’ surface with supplemental oxygen, perhaps, but without the need for a pressurized space suit.
“There are millions of comets and icy asteroids in the solar system, even billions if you count the Oort Cloud,” says SpaceX’s chief Mars terraforming scientist Evan Kirstel. “We will need at least 500 and perhaps a few thousand of them to raise atmospheric temperature and pressure to a livable range.”
The significant variance is a function of the different size of comets and asteroids. Comets are generally small, ranging from specks to 20-40 kilometers in diameter. Asteroids in the space between Mars’ and Jupiter’s orbits are generally bigger, but most of them are rocky or metallic. Only a small percentage are icy and contain the water and other elements SpaceX wants.
“Ultimately, we want to provide Mars with an atmosphere worthy of the name,” Kirstel added.
SpaceX has had Oort-class Starships in the asteroid belt for at least five years now. When Asteroid 2033 A2 was discovered, scientists noted that it appeared to be mostly water ice, and SpaceX kicked off research and development for ways to slowly change its orbit using a fraction of the planetoid’s own mass as propellant. A decade later, thanks to an extremely fortuitous orbital path, they managed to guide it to Mars.
Another 10 asteroids and comets are en route to Mars, and SpaceX is actively seeking hundreds more by deploying up to 35 “super-Hubble” space telescopes at various points around Mars’ orbit. Most will take significantly longer to intersect Mars’ orbit: up to 100 Terran years or more.
One big question, of course: is this safe?
According to SpaceX scientists, the small earth colony on Mars will be in fact be safe during the bombardment. Most of the 3,300 humans on Mars live under tens of meters of Mars rock in subterranean habitats. That protects them from solar and cosmic radiation, which Mars’ thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field allow right down the planet’s surface. It will also protect them from any disruption due to both natural and designed meteorites, SpaceX says.
All impacts are half-way around the planet — assuming the scientists know what they’re doing — and all Mars habitats have constructed multiple redundancies and failsafes in case of marsquakes.
“Our goal is that all incoming celestial objects detonate off the surface,” Kirstel says. “That way we get maximum benefit for the atmosphere with minimal impact on Mars.”
Kirstel is referencing similar events on earth. In 1908 the Tunguska explosion from a massive meteorite that detonated high in Earth’s atmosphere flatted 200 square kilometers of Siberian forest. And in 2013, a similar but smaller object blew up lower in the sky near Chelyabinsk, Russia. In both cases, super-heating from rapid travel through our dense atmosphere caused rapid expansion and ultimately an explosion.
It’s not clear that Mars’ thin atmosphere will do the same however, although Musk said that SpaceX is angling the meteorites’ trajectory to travel through as much atmosphere as possible before impact. Preliminary analysis of this first attempt suggests success: there was minimal seismic activity during the entire event.
Both Kirstel and Musk are putting their money where their mouths are. Or their lives.
Both are actually living on Mars right now, and will be for the next five to seven impacts.
Of course, there’s significant pushback from many parties. The United Nations wants to know what authority SpaceX has to transform an entire planet. Conservationists worry that any native Mars flora or features will be destroyed. Spacefaring nations such as China warn that it plans multiple additional exploratory trips, and SpaceX had better not do anything to jeopardize those missions. But Musk and the SpaceX scientists have said establishing a viable home for all humanity takes precedence.
“Through destruction, creation,” Musk tweeted a week ago.
There’s an internal controversy in SpaceX itself, however. Some of the core Mars terraforming team want to hit Mars with a heavy iron-rich asteroid. The idea with this impact wouldn’t be to graze the atmosphere and detonate mid-air, but to hit Mars dead-on with a comic bullet that punches through the core of the planet and reignites a molten core deep within the planet. Only then, they say, will Mars regain a powerful magnetic field that would protect future human settlers from damaging space radiation.
That, of course, is a much bigger risk, and would probably require moving the human population off-planet — perhaps for years.
Other detractors, however, say Musk is also looking for metal-rich asteroids to bring to Mars orbit and kick off a solar system wide space construction boom. Metallic asteroids could contain billions of dollars worth of precious metals as well as building materials, and Musk has not denied that this is part of his plan, even though some say it could devastate earth-based mining and resource extraction industries.
In any case, the terraforming of Mars has begun, and we’ve entered a new age of human history. May it go better than the preceding ones.
Will Musk live to see Mars transformed? Not as a typical biological human, at least.
Musk is now in his 70s, and the most optimistic estimate for completion stretches to hundreds of years. Musk has, however, spoken about “downloading his consciousness” in the past, and his Neuralink startup makes that at least theoretically possible.
So perhaps AI Musk will indeed “live” to see Mars 2.0.
Again, this is a chapter of Insights from the Future, a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes.