Published: Wed, July 17, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Using "frozen smoke" to build terraforming domes on Mars


By making some experiments and some models, researchers show that a two to three cm-thick shield made out of silica aerogel could make enough visible light for photosynthesis, and it can block unsafe ultraviolet radiation.

The heat-insulating material silica aerogel is 97% porous, which can greatly slow the conduction of heat.

"This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification", said the study.

"Mars is the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth", JPL research scientist Laura Kerber said in a statement.

But don't pack your bags just yet, because our red neighbor is still extremely hostile for most kinds of life, Kerber says.

"We started thinking about this solid-state greenhouse effect and how it could be invoked for creating habitable environments on Mars in the future", Dr. Wordsworth said.

By combining their experiments' results with modeling, the researchers concluded in the journal Nature Astronomy that a thin layer of this material could be used to envelop a small area of mid-latitude Mars to achieve Earth-like temperatures.

Dr. Wordsworth and colleagues were inspired by a phenomenon that already occurs on Mars.

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The study also brings the fact to light that polar ice caps on Mars are a combination of water ice and frozen CO2, unlike Earth's polar ice caps which are made only from frozen water.

The conclusion was that the aerogel which looks like a frozen cloud was able to block the UV radiation, but it allowed enough visible light to pass through in order to warm the surface of the Red Planet. In the summer, this solid-state greenhouse effect creates pockets of warming under the ice. "We have to always be careful about putting life on Mars and with any exploration or terraforming projects there", Wordsworth said. "It wouldn't require large amounts of energy or maintenance of moving parts to keep an area warm over long periods of time".

Of course, there are still many engineering challenges that need to be addressed.

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. However, there's only enough carbon dioxide in the Martian polar ice caps, dust and rocks to raise the pressure to 20 millibars at most. The climate model used for the simulation showed that it would take two Martian years or four Earth years to produce a permanent layer of subsurface liquid water.

The team anxious that if Mars is to made habitable shortly, there are philosophical and ethical questions that require serious mulling over, especially if Mars still incorporates life in the present day.

Study suggests that if these silica aerogel shields are placed over the ice-rich regions of the Martian surface, they can easily allow the photosynthetic life to survive.

To understand how aerogel greenhouses would fair in Mars, a team of scientists from Harvard, University of Edinburgh and CalTech recreated Mars-like conditions in a lab. If there is, how do we navigate that.

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