Mars is a very unwelcoming place and NASA said we can’t just terraform the entire planet. But researchers have a new idea which includes silica aerogel.

A team of researchers from Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Edinburgh believe silica aerogel could make the surface of Mars habitable for Earthlings. This aerogel is one of the lightest materials ever created. It’s transparent and an excellent thermal insulator.

What was once a blue ocean world that could have supported life, it’s now a barren inhospitable desert. Modern Mars has a thin atmosphere with very little oxygen. It is extremely cold and there’s no protection from UV radiation from the Sun.

However, the researchers say a thin layer of silica aerogel could mimic Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect. The material could warm the surface and block UV radiation while still letting visible light through.

Through modeling and experiments, the team found that a two to three-centimeter-thick shield of silica aerogel in the Martian sky could be enough to keep water liquid and let plants photosynthesize within a given region.

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“This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification,” said Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

“Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have.”

“Mars is the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth,” said Laura Kerber, Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life. A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way.”

A phenomenon that already occurs on the surface of Mars inspired the team to do the researching. The planet’s polar ice caps are a mix of water ice and frozen CO2. Even when frozen CO2 allows sunlight to penetrate while trapping heat. In the summer, this solid-state greenhouse effect creates pockets of warming under the ice.

“We started thinking about this solid-state greenhouse effect and how it could be invoked for creating habitable environments on Mars in the future,” said Wordsworth. “We started thinking about what kind of materials could minimize thermal conductivity but still transmit as much light as possible.”

However, the team acknowledges that scientists should consider astrobiological risks before they can use silica aerogel on Mars. So the researchers suggest testing it in Mars-like climates on Earth, such as the extreme environments like deserts.

The researchers published their work in Nature Astronomy.

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