If humans hope to colonize Mars someday, we'll need to figure how to survive and grow crops on a large scale in an inhospitable environment. A new study in Nature Astronomy suggests a potential part of the solution: Build greenhouses and other structures out of an extremely light insulating material called aerogel, per NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This material, made mostly of silica and similar to Styrofoam, is nicknamed "frozen smoke" for its appearance, notes CNET. In their study, researchers mimicked the environment on Mars to show that the aerogel structures would allow in light for photosynthesis but block harmful UV radiation, all while raising temperatures beneath them to levels that would melt frozen water beneath the surface.
That, crucially, would allow habitats to be built in wide swaths of otherwise inhabitable parts of the planet. "Mars is warmer around the equator, but most of the water ice is located at higher latitudes," says co-author Laura Kerber of NASA. "Building with silica aerogel would allow us to artificially create warm environments where there is already water ice available." The next step is to test the concept on a larger scale in areas such as the Atacama Desert in South America and the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, reports Wired. "This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification," says researcher Robin Wordsworth. "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." (Read more Mars stories.)