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.

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