Last week, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but many hope to fly even farther. During an Independence Day address to the nation, President Donald Trump said that “someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars.” If everything goes according to NASA’s plan, that will happen in the 2030s, but many specifics must be worked out before then.
Researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland are devising a plan to make regions of the Martian surface habitable by introducing a blanket of silica aerogel, somewhat like a frozen smoke, into the planet’s atmosphere. According to the researchers, a thin layer of this material could mimic Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect and increase average temperatures to an Earth-like range in Mars’ middle latitudes. The goal is to make part of the planet warm enough to keep water in a liquid state.
In the paper, published June 15 in Nature Astronomy, the scientists showed that a 2- to 3-centimeter-thick shield of silica aerogel could block hazardous ultraviolet radiation, permanently raise temperatures beneath it to above the melting point of water, and transmit enough visible light to allow plants to grow in the Martian soil.
Laura Kerber, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the aerogel could create self-contained areas on Mars where people could live and grow crops.
“Mars is the most habitable planet in our solar system besides Earth, but it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life,” she said in a statement. “A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way.” —J.B.