Jul 16, 2019

New aerogel could make Mars livable

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

NASA's Curiosity rover has been on Mars for 7 years

Curiosity on Mars in 2018. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity rover just completed its seventh year on Mars, during which the car-sized spacecraft has changed the way we understand the Red Planet.

Why it matters: Curiosity is responsible for revealing that Mars was once a wet, relatively warm and habitable world far more like Earth than scientists expected. Researchers hope that the rover will aid in even more discoveries before its life on Mars is finished.

Go deeperArrowAug 8, 2019

The unknown risks of radiation in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lack of hard data on the effects of radiation on astronauts — and how to mitigate the health threat — could set back NASA's plans to send people to Mars in the 2030s, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: Radiation, particularly in the form of high-energy galactic cosmic rays, can increase an astronaut's risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular issues and even cognitive deficits.

Go deeperArrowAug 6, 2019

The road to Titan

Titan orbiting Saturn, taken from Cassini. Photo by: Universal/Getty

President Trump has set his sights on the Moon. Elon Musk's are on Mars. But some of the edgier talk urges an even bolder national aim — a human mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

Driving the news: A mania broke out in the U.S. last week over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and returning to the Moon by 2024 and possibly Mars in the 2030s. But if the aim is an awe-inspiring mission leading to the colonization of space, neither may be the best practical answer.

Go deeperArrowJul 23, 2019