A scientific team has reported on a way to make Mars habitable with a layer of aerogel – and by using the material it can mimic an Earthly greenhouse effect.

The researchers are from Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Edinburgh.

“A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way,” said Laura Kerber with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is one of the authors of the just-published “Enabling Martian habitability with silica aerogel via the solid-state greenhouse effect” published in the journal, Nature Astronomy.

New approach

The paper explains that the low temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation levels

at the surface of Mars today currently preclude the survival of life anywhere except perhaps in limited subsurface niches.

“Several ideas for making the Martian surface more habitable have been put forward, but they all involve massive environmental modification that will be well beyond human capability for the foreseeable future,” the research team explains.

They present a new approach to this problem.

Scientists are exploring how aerogel, a translucent, Styrofoam-like material, could be used as a building material on Mars. Aerogel retains heat; structures built with it could raise temperatures enough to melt water ice on the Martian surface.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Silica aerogel

“We show that widespread regions of the surface of Mars could be made habitable to photosynthetic life in the future via a solid-state analogue to Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect,” the Mars team adds.

Specifically, the team has demonstrated via experiments and computer models that under Martian environmental conditions, a 2–3 centimeter-thick layer of silica aerogel will simultaneously transmit sufficient visible light for photosynthesis, block hazardous ultraviolet radiation and raise temperatures underneath it permanently to above the melting point of water, without the need for any internal heat source.

The Red Planet as seen by Europe’s Mars Express.
Credit: ESA/D. O’Donnell – CC BY-SA IGO

Regional approach

“Placing silica aerogel shields over sufficiently ice-rich regions of the Martian surface could therefore allow photosynthetic life to survive there with minimal subsequent intervention,” they explain. “This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification. In addition, it can be developed systematically, starting from minimal resources, and can be further tested in extreme environments on Earth today.”

Indeed, the researchers report they are going to test the material in Mars-like climates on Earth, such as the dry valleys of Antarctica or Chile.

The paper — Enabling Martian habitability with silica aerogel via the solid-state greenhouse effect – is available at:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-019-0813-0.pdf

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