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3-min read

Life on Mars Could Owe Its Foundation to World's Lightest Solid, Aerogel: NASA-JPL

In a post detailing the ground realities of putting humans on the Red Planet, NASA-CalTech's JPL researchers have proposed a material that is 99 percent air, and an excellent insulator.

Shouvik Das | News18.com@distantvicinity

Updated:July 16, 2019, 7:21 PM IST
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Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mankind's will to turn Mars into a life-sustaining colony is no real secret. But, as luck would have it, the process is unlikely to be as simple as sending Matt Damon out on a space mission. After having debunked theories such as terraforming due to the characteristics of the Martian atmosphere, the latest study published in the Nature Astronomy journal reveals the idea of using a material called Aerogel in order to maintain sub-surface water in the liquid state. This would enable colonies to have access to Mars' water substrate, and thereby use such patches as micro-biomes, or mini habitats from where life on Mars can be sustained.

The key to this new development in astrophysics lies in the properties of Aerogel. As the paper details, Aerogel is the world's lightest solid, exhibiting Styrofoam-like chemical bond in its molecules. However, in contrast to other solids developed on Earth, Aerogel is 99 percent air, and its molecular bond exhibits greenhouse properties, where it allows heat from incident radiation to enter, while filtering out radiations like ultraviolet rays and also trapping the heat inside. While the fragile nature of the solid makes it a bit difficult to exist on its own, the lightness means its strength can be harnessed when built in between structural contraptions with high tensile strength.

To emulate a possible use case, the scientists created a 2-3cm layer of aerosol and exposed it to a lamp that recreated the properties of Martian sunlight. The result showed that the surface underneath the Aerogel layer could be heated by nearly 65 degrees Celsius, which the scientists note is enough to create a permanent heat layer on Martian surface, which in turn can melt the subterranean water ice, and create liquid water reservoirs that will be crucial to mankind's sustenance on the barren planet. Since the Martian atmosphere is too thin and does not exhibit Earth-like heat retention properties, solid elements such as Aerogel will be crucial in replicating life sustaining conditions on the planet.

The importance of Aerogel further lies in the way the ice reservoir on Mars is distributed. While the Martian poles contain the frigid ice caps and are hence ideal for establishing water reservoirs such as this Aerogel-proposed one, Mars is warmer towards its equators, which in turn is more naturally inclined towards supporting human life in near-ideal temperature conditions. As a result, a matter such as Aerogel may be key to establishing uniform life links all across the planet. For instance, while the water reservoir establishment is one that can be built near the poles, more complex compounds based on Aerogel can be built in the equators to help human colonies withstand the harsh Martian winters. This will be particularly crucial, since Mars does not enjoy the natural atmospheric insulation.

However, the chief scientists behind this project, Robin Wordsworth of Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Laura Kerber, geologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, note that there are significant challenges to an Aergel-based ecosystem for mankind in Mars. The biggest obstruction to this is the large quantity of Aerogel that would be required for significant impact — either we need to find a way to make Aerogel in Mars, or efficiently ship batches of it from here to there. Given its fragile nature, this creates its own logistical hazard. The scientists further noted that the idea of terraforming the planet would be near-impossible given the practical obstructions, and as a result, society is likely to flourish in Mars in isolated batches — something that brings with itself yet another issue of its own, that of building Mars' own, local communications system.

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