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Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Future space explorers might be able to use a silica aerogel — a porous, extremely light solid material — to insulate greenhouses and other structures on Mars, a study in the journal Nature Astronomy this week shows.

Why it matters: Most schemes to allow people to live on Mars include some kind of extreme attempt to make the planet itself livable though terraforming, but the new aerogel could prove a simple and low-tech solution for habitability.

Details: The study suggests that just a 2- to 3-centimeter-thick aerogel "shield" over parts of the Martian surface could actually make those parts of the world able to sustain liquid water on the surface and even support photosynthesis.

  • The aerogel is "very light and it is an incredibly effective thermal insulator. It also is nearly transparent to visible radiation but blocks UV light," Robin Wordsworth, one of the authors of the study told Axios via email.
  • The gel could raise the temperature of the surface beneath it by as much as 122°F, helping to protect whatever is beneath it from temperatures that can dip as low as -130°F in the midlatitudes during the winter, according to NASA.
  • Wordsworth and the other authors of the study replicated conditions on Mars in a lab and then used climate models to show that the aerogel could insulate the planet's surface.

But, but, but: There's a way to go before the material is ready for the Red Planet. "Aerogel is quite fragile, so it'd need to be modified or combined with other materials to make a robust shield," Wordsworth said.

  • The scientists behind the idea are now hoping to test the aerogel on Earth in a desert or even Antarctica to see just how effective it could be on Mars.

Go deeper

The social media addiction bubble

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Right now, everyone from Senate leaders to the makers of Netflix's popular "Social Dilemma" is promoting the idea that Facebook is addictive.

Yes, but: Human beings have raised fears about the addictive nature of every new media technology since the 18th century brought us the novel, yet the species has always seemed to recover its balance once the initial infatuation wears off.

Young people's next big COVID test

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Young, healthy people will be at the back of the line for coronavirus vaccines, and they'll have to maintain their sense of urgency as they wait their turn — otherwise, vaccinations won't be as effective in bringing the pandemic to a close.

The big picture: "It’s great young people are anticipating the vaccine," said Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at the University of Texas. But the prospect of that enthusiasm waning is "a cause for concern," she said.

8 hours ago - World

New Zealand authorities charge 13 parties over deadly volcano eruption

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at New Zealand's parliament in Wellington. Photo: Mark Tantrum Photography via Getty Images

New Zealand authorities laid safety violation charges Monday against 10 organizations and three individuals over the fatal Whakaari/White Island volcanic disaster last December, per a statement from the agency WorksSafe.

Details: WorksSafe declined to name those charged as they may seek name suppression in court. But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said government agencies GNS Science, which monitors volcanic activity, and the National Emergency Management Agency were among those charged over the "horrific tragedy" that killed 22 people.