Make Mars Habitable Again: Scientists Unveil New Plan to Allow Life on The Red Planet

A new way of making Mars habitable has been announced by a team of scientists led by Harvard's Robin Wordsworth. Researchers say just a thin layer of an aerogel—a porous, lightweight synthetic material—could insulate the surface of Mars so regions where it was applied could sustain liquid water, allowing life to develop.

Terraforming is a process whereby a planet is transformed by human intervention so it can be inhabited by humans. It is a staple of science fiction, but is becoming increasingly looked at as a viable option for the colonization of Mars.

The idea of manned settlements on Mars is being explored by space agencies across the globe. SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently said he would like to build a base on Mars before 2030. He outlined his vision for the settlement in 2017.

Probably 2028 for a base to be built

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 21, 2018

We know the Red Planet once had liquid water, with oceans covering a large part of the surface. It is thought that Mars could have been habitable for hundreds of millions of years, before its atmosphere was stripped away and its water lost to space. It is now a barren landscape with temperatures plummeting to around minus 62 degrees Celsius.

Scientists have proposed a number of different ways of making Mars habitable. In 1971, Carl Sagen suggested vaporizing Mars' northern polar ice caps could lead to the creation of an atmosphere that would result in the planet getting warmer by greenhouse gasses getting trapped inside. A warmer planet, he said, could result in liquid water—and therefore the potential for life would increase.

Different methods for releasing Mars' carbon dioxide have been suggested in the past. However, none have been found to be feasible—at least with our current technological capabilities.

But instead of trying to terraform the whole of Mars, Wordsworth and his team suggest focusing on small regions. In a paper published in Nature Astronomy, they look using silica aerogel—a material that mimics the greenhouse gas effect on Earth.

"Mars is the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth," Laura Kerber, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of the study authors, said in a statement. "But it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life. A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way."

The aerogel has incredible insulating capabilities. It is 97 percent porous so light flows through. However, the nanolayers within slow down heat being conducted. This means that when placed on the Martian surface, it could increase average temperatures to closer to what we have on Earth. Experiments show that when placed at Mars' mid latitudes, a layer just an inch thick could transmit light for photosynthesis, block UV radiation and raise temperatures so liquid water could exist.

"Spread across a large enough area, you wouldn't need any other technology or physics, you would just need a layer of this stuff on the surface and underneath you would have permanent liquid water," Wordsworth said in a statement. "This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification. 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."

The team say the aerogel could be spread over an area with habitation zones built over. In an email to Newsweek, Wordsworth said: "This could have big benefits for future human exploration efforts on Mars, and for astrobiology research. It could also help us to understand better how to construct habitats in extreme environments on Earth."

They stress, however, that thorough research should be carried out before any trials on Mars take place: "If you're going to enable life on the Martian surface, are you sure that there's not life there already? If there is, how do we navigate that," Wordsworth said.

Zach Dickeson, from the Department of Earth Sciences at London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were interesting as it changes the way we think about Mars' habitability.

"What makes this study more feasible is that instead of trying to change the entire climate or atmosphere of Mars to make it habitable for life, it focuses on just a thin layer at the surface, and relies on existing materials and technologies," he said in an email to Newsweek. "Of course, this plan wouldn't allow a human to walk around on the surface of Mars without a space suit, but it could be a great way to melt water currently frozen as ice under the surface or collect oxygen released by photosynthetic organisms living under the aerogel sheets."

He also said, however, that the proposed layer would still constitute a "huge undertaking" and that the reality of it is still some way off: "But a small demonstration of the concept on the surface of Mars might be achievable sooner," he said.

Dickeson also flagged the planetary protection issues raised by the team: "The plan proposed in this study would require intentionally introducing Earth organisms to Mars, and although the current conditions at the surface of Mars are very hostile to life, any area where this would be implemented would first have to be carefully examined for signs of life."

In terms of the next steps, Wordsworth said: "The ultimate test will be building small habitats on Mars, perhaps using robotic landers initially. Before we do that, we can do field work and further laboratory simulations on Earth in the next few years. Within this time frame, it'll be clear if there are any show-stoppers (we haven't identified any so far)."

This article has been updated to include quotes from Robin Wordsworth.

Parts of Mars could become habitable under a new terraforming plan. NASA