Science 4 min read

Terraforming Mars Could be Possible Using Silica Aerogel

A joint team of researchers from NASA, Harvard University, and the University of Edinburg proposes a new approach that could make terraforming Mars possible.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Terraforming Mars has been the ambitious goal of many scientists since Carl Sagan proposed the idea nearly five decades ago. However, despite recent discoveries and numerous observations, the scientific community remains uncertain if the Red Planet could support and nurture life.

At a distance of 227.9 million kilometers away from the sun, Mars receives less than half of the heat and sunlight Earth gets from our star. This, coupled with its thin atmosphere, makes our neighboring planet pretty cold. In fact, its temperature can drop up to -200 degrees Fahrenheit (-128.90 degrees Celsius).

By comparison, Earth’s coldest region, Antartica, has its lowest temperature recorded between -144 and -146 degrees Fahrenheit. The measurement was made by meteorologists from the University of Wisconsin last year.

Now, with a thin atmosphere, surface covered in iron minerals, dust, and rocks, plus little to no signs of water anywhere on the planet, could terraforming Mars ever be possible?

A team of NASA and university scientists may have found the answer.

Is terraforming Mars Possible?

A team of researchers from NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Lab, Harvard University, and the University of Edinburg believes that terraforming Mars is achievable. They propose that instead of transforming the whole planet, why not take a more regional approach?

In their paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the scientists suggest using the porous material silica aerogel to create dome shields on some parts of Mars. According to them, the material can be utilized to mimic our planet’s atmospheric greenhouse effect and turn some regions of the Martian surface habitable.

Through modeling and experiments, the team was able to demonstrate that a shield made of around 2 to 3-centimeter-thick silica aerogel is more than enough to block UV radiation. Not only that, but the silica material could also transmit enough visible light for photosynthesis and raise the temperature beneath the ground above water’s melting point permanently.

Robin Wordsworth, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said:

“This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification. 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.”

Laura Kerber, a research scientist from NASA, added:

“Mars is the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth. 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.”

Why use Silica Aerogel on Terraforming Mars?

The team explained that they thought of using silica aerogel because of its many useful properties. Aside from being the most insulating material on Earth, silica aerogels are said to be 97 percent porous which allows light to pass through while its nanolayers slow down conduction of heat. It was also the material used to insulate NASA’s Mars rovers.  Wordsworth noted:

“Spread across a large enough area, you wouldn’t need any other technology or physics, you would just need a layer of this stuff on the surface and underneath you would have permanent liquid water.”

The team is now planning to test the material on Mars-like regions here on Earth. However, the group pointed out that the idea of making Mars habitable for humans and other life also raises other questions regarding planetary protection.

“If you’re going to enable life on the Martian surface, are you sure that there’s not life there already? If there is, how do we navigate that. The moment we decide to commit to having humans on Mars, these questions are inevitable.”

Read More: Alien Lifeforms On Mars Could Be Hiding In Fettuccine-Like Rocks

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Rechelle Ann Fuertes

Rechelle is an SEO content producer, technical writer, researcher, social media manager, and visual artist. She enjoys traveling and spending time anywhere near the sea with family and friends.

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