Humans may be able to live on Mars within halls of aerogel – a wonder material that can trap heat and block radiation

Just build houses near the ice caps to produce water and grow food. Easy!

We may be able to survive and live on Mars in regions protected by thin ceilings of silica aerogel, a strong lightweight material that insulates heat and blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation while weighing almost nothing.

Researchers at Harvard University in the US, NASA, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland envision areas of Mars enclosed by two to three-centimetre-thick walls of silica aerogel. The strange material is ghost-like in appearance, and although it’s up to 99.98 per cent air, it’s actually a solid.

Aerogels come in various shapes and forms with their own mix of properties. Typically, they are made from sucking out the liquid in a gel using something called a supercritical dryer device. The resulting aerogel consists of pockets of air, and is therefore ultralight and can be capable of trapping heat. It can also be made hydrophobic or semi-porous as needed.

The semitransparent solid, therefore, has odd properties that may just help humans colonize the Red Planet. The solid silica can be manufactured to block out, say, dangerous UV rays while allowing visible light through.

However, it's the trapping of heat that is most interesting here. When the boffins shone a lamp onto a thin block of silica aerogel, measuring less than 3cm thick, they found that the surface beneath the material warmed up to 65 degrees Celsius (that’s 150 degrees Fahrenheit for you Americans), high enough, of course, to melt ice into water. The results were published in Nature Astronomy on Monday.

Welcome to the Hotel Aerogel

The academics reckon if a region of ice near the higher latitudes of Mars was covered with a layer of aerogel, then the frosty ground would melt to produce liquid water as the environment heats up. It’d also be warm enough for humans to live and farm food in order to survive in the otherwise harsh, acrid conditions elsewhere the planet.


NASA boffins may just carve your name on a chip and send it to Mars if you ask nicely


“The ideal place for a Martian outpost would have plentiful water and moderate temperatures," said Laura Kerber, co-author of the paper and a geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Mars is warmer around the equator, but most of the water ice is located at higher latitudes. Building with silica aerogel would allow us to artificially create warm environments where there is already water ice available."

The researchers hope to test their idea by conducting more silica aerogel experiments in the Atacama Desert in Chile or McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. Both environments have subzero-Celsius temperatures and are as unforgiving as Mars.

“Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have,” said Robin Wordsworth, first author of the paper and an assistant professor of environmental Science and engineering at Harvard University.

But there are obviously other challenges to making Mars habitable. The atmospheric pressure there is lower than Earth’s, and the undersides of aerogel walls will need to be pressurized to prevent water vapor seeping out. The dusty nature of the planet might also cut the amount of light that could penetrate such a shelter.

Also, there’s the problem of how to ship large quantities of the material to build settlements – aerogel is insanely light but also very bulky. Oh, and another thing: there’s also very little oxygen on Mars so we’ll have to work out how we can even breathe let alone water crops, unless we can crack Martian water into hydrogen and oxygen safely. ®

PS: Interestingly enough, it is believed a classified type of aerogel codenamed FOGBANK is used in American thermonuclear warheads as a filler between the fission primary and the fusion-stage secondary. The material is so hush-hush, the US military accidentally forgot how to make it at one point.

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • DigitalOcean tries to take sting out of price hike with $4 VM
    Cloud biz says it is reacting to customer mix largely shifting from lone devs to SMBs

    DigitalOcean attempted to lessen the sting of higher prices this week by announcing a cut-rate instance aimed at developers and hobbyists.

    The $4-a-month droplet — what the infrastructure-as-a-service outfit calls its virtual machines — pairs a single virtual CPU with 512 MB of memory, 10 GB of SSD storage, and 500 GB a month in network bandwidth.

    The launch comes as DigitalOcean plans a sweeping price hike across much of its product portfolio, effective July 1. On the low-end, most instances will see pricing increase between $1 and $16 a month, but on the high-end, some products will see increases of as much as $120 in the case of DigitalOceans’ top-tier storage-optimized virtual machines.

    Continue reading
  • GPL legal battle: Vizio told by judge it will have to answer breach-of-contract claims
    Fine-print crucially deemed contractual agreement as well as copyright license in smartTV source-code case

    The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) has won a significant legal victory in its ongoing effort to force Vizio to publish the source code of its SmartCast TV software, which is said to contain GPLv2 and LGPLv2.1 copyleft-licensed components.

    SFC sued Vizio, claiming it was in breach of contract by failing to obey the terms of the GPLv2 and LGPLv2.1 licenses that require source code to be made public when certain conditions are met, and sought declaratory relief on behalf of Vizio TV owners. SFC wanted its breach-of-contract arguments to be heard by the Orange County Superior Court in California, though Vizio kicked the matter up to the district court level in central California where it hoped to avoid the contract issue and defend its corner using just federal copyright law.

    On Friday, Federal District Judge Josephine Staton sided with SFC and granted its motion to send its lawsuit back to superior court. To do so, Judge Staton had to decide whether or not the federal Copyright Act preempted the SFC's breach-of-contract allegations; in the end, she decided it didn't.

    Continue reading
  • US brings first-of-its-kind criminal charges of Bitcoin-based sanctions-busting
    Citizen allegedly moved $10m-plus in BTC into banned nation

    US prosecutors have accused an American citizen of illegally funneling more than $10 million in Bitcoin into an economically sanctioned country.

    It's said the resulting criminal charges of sanctions busting through the use of cryptocurrency are the first of their kind to be brought in the US.

    Under the United States' International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEA), it is illegal for a citizen or institution within the US to transfer funds, directly or indirectly, to a sanctioned country, such as Iran, Cuba, North Korea, or Russia. If there is evidence the IEEA was willfully violated, a criminal case should follow. If an individual or financial exchange was unwittingly involved in evading sanctions, they may be subject to civil action. 

    Continue reading
  • Meta hires network chip guru from Intel: What does this mean for future silicon?
    Why be a customer when you can develop your own custom semiconductors

    Analysis Here's something that should raise eyebrows in the datacenter world: Facebook parent company Meta has hired a veteran networking chip engineer from Intel to lead silicon design efforts in the internet giant's infrastructure hardware engineering group.

    Jon Dama started as director of silicon in May for Meta's infrastructure hardware group, a role that has him "responsible for several design teams innovating the datacenter for scale," according to his LinkedIn profile. In a blurb, Dama indicated that a team is already in place at Meta, and he hopes to "scale the next several doublings of data processing" with them.

    Though we couldn't confirm it, we think it's likely that Dama is reporting to Alexis Bjorlin, Meta's vice president of infrastructure hardware who previously worked with Dama when she was general manager of Intel's Connectivity group before serving a two-year stint at Broadcom.

    Continue reading
  • Lithium production needs investment to keep pace with battery demand
    Report says $42b will need to be poured into industry over next decade

    Growing demand for lithium for batteries means the sector will need $42 billion of investment to meet the anticipated level of orders by the end of the decade, according to a report.

    Lithium is used in batteries that power smartphones and laptops, but there is also rising use in electric vehicles which is putting additional pressure on supplies.

    The report, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, predicts that demand will reach 2.4 million tons of lithium carbonate equivalent by 2030, roughly four times the 600,000 tons of lithium forecast to be produced this year.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022