Airy Gel Could Help Sustain Life on Mars

This May 12, 2016, image provided by NASA shows the planet Mars. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team – STScI/AURA, J. Bell – ASU, M. Wolff – Space Science Institute via AP)

(CN) – Silica aerogels have been used to keep NASA exploration rovers warm at night, and a study released Monday shows it could be the solution to sustaining life in the most uninhabitable of places – Mars.

Robin Wordsworth, a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University, conducted a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy examining the topic.

He replicated Martian conditions to test the viability of photosynthetic life when silica aerogel was used as a medium to aid growth. The possibilities the study brings to light could mean terrestrial life existing on Mars.

As far as scientists have determined, Mars is currently unable to sustain life due to frigid temperatures and harmful ultraviolet radiation, among other impediments. Researchers have proposed solutions to this, but said proposals involve drastically changing the planet’s atmosphere, something vastly unattainable with current technology.

Wordsworth and his colleagues give a new perspective with silica aerogel in which there is no need to alter the atmosphere. Instead, scientists can simply apply a protective layer to a surface.

Silica aerogel is one of the lightest, most versatile substances known to man. It is a gel made of 97% air with extremely low density and thermal conductivity and is also able to transmit visible light. It has already seen use in NASA’s Stardust mission where it was used to capture samples of comet and interstellar dust.

Wordsworth found that by applying a layer of silica aerogel 2 to 3 inches thick to a surface, it could create a greenhouse effect, warming the subsurface to maintain liquid water throughout the Martian year and protecting the ground from UV rays. It promotes warm temperatures and still allows visible light through to encourage growth.

Before this can be tested on the surface of Mars, the authors stress that we must first understand the implications of the technology. Wordsworth suggests first testing this approach on some extreme landscapes on Earth, including areas of Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Once further tested, Wordsworth said the research will open countless doors to achieving terrestrial life on other planets.

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