The researchers suggest that regions of the Martian surface could be made habitable with a material - silica aerogel - that mimics Earth's atmospheric greenhouse effect. Not only that, but the silica material could also transmit enough visible light for photosynthesis and raise the temperature beneath the ground above water's melting point permanently.
Silica aerogel could also be used in order to build habitation domes or even self-contained biospheres on Mars, experts confirm.
As quoted by Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, this kind of regional approach was "more achievable" than the previous research idea in the field of making Mars habitable.
But don't pack your bags just yet, because our red neighbor is still extremely hostile for most kinds of life, Kerber says.
"Everything is expensive when it comes to sending missions to Mars, so if you are serious about creating habitable conditions there, you want to consider making the most of the incredible constraints on resources you have to face", Wordsworth said. Additionally, the same material can be incorporated into greenhouses and habitats for any future pioneers that visit Mars.
The researchers were inspired by a phenomenon that already occurs on Mars.
The study also brings the fact to light that polar ice caps on Mars are a combination of water ice and frozen CO2, unlike Earth's polar ice caps which are made only from frozen water. It can trap heat, and make the surface warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface, allowing for the cultivation of crops.
The study is titled "Enabling Martian habitability with silica aerogel via the solid-state greenhouse effect" and has been published in Nature Astronomy.More news: Homicide of Utica teen Bianca Devins: A timeline of events
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Terraforming Mars, it seemed, was an unfulfillable dream.
The researchers chose to test this situation with silica aerogel, which is one of the best insulators ever created. It wouldn't require large amounts of energy to keep an area warm over long periods of time, according to Kerber.
The researchers demonstrated that a thin layer of this material could increase average temperatures of mid-latitudes on Mars to Earth-like temperatures.
The experiment is a proof of concept, and there are still some challenges to overcome. Just like the Earth, Mars has polar ice caps as well.
Spread across a large enough area, silica aerogel gets right to work warming the planet's surface to create a permanent reserve of liquid water below.
The team anxious that if Mars is to made habitable shortly, there are philosophical and ethical questions that require serious mulling over, especially if Mars still incorporates life in the present day.
"If you're going to enable life on the Martian surface, are you sure that there's not life there already", he asked. "If there is, how do we navigate that", asked Wordsworth.
Moving forward, the team aims to test the material in Mars-like climates on Earth, including the dry valleys of Antarctica or Chile.