In an experiment two to three centimetres of silica aerogel allowed light from a lamp tuned to simulate Martian sunlight to heat the surface beneath it by up to 65C (150F) - enough to raise temperatures on the Martian surface and melt water ice.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on July 16, 2019

School science teachers said that Mars is inhabitable as it is so cold.

But, as NASA states, Mars – half the size of Earth – is very much like the planet we live on. It has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons and weather.

Scientists dreamed and David Bowie sang about ‘Life on Mars’ but in 2018 the hopes and dreams were shut down. Two NASA-funded researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder and Northern Arizona University found that even if all greenhouse gases and water available were processed it was far short of what is needed to make the planet habitable.

Now researchers from Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Edinburgh, have a new idea.

Researchers think there is a way parts of Mars can be made habitable.

Their research, published in Nature Astronomy, proposes a material called aerogel might help humans one day build greenhouses and other habitats at Mars’ mid-latitudes, where near-surface water ice has been identified.

Aerogel is a Styrofoam-like solid that is 99% air, making it extremely light. It’s adept at preventing the transfer of heat, making it an excellent insulator; in fact, it’s been used for that purpose on all of NASA’s Mars rovers. Moreover, aerogel is translucent, allowing visible light to pass through while blocking ultraviolet light’s harmful radiation. Most aerogel is made from silica, the same material found in glass.

In an experiment conducted by lead author Robin Wordsworth of Harvard, two-three centimetres of silica aerogel allowed light from a lamp tuned to simulate Martian sunlight to heat the surface beneath it by up to 65C (150F) – enough to raise temperatures on the Martian surface and melt water ice.

“The study was meant as an initial test of aerogel’s potential as a Martian building material,” said second author Laura Kerber, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Kerber participated in a 2015 NASA workshop to identify the best places on Mars to send astronauts. “The ideal place for a Martian outpost would have plentiful water and moderate temperatures,” she said. “Mars is warmer around the equator, but most of the water ice is located at higher latitudes. Building with silica aerogel would allow us to artificially create warm environments where there is already water ice available.”