Engineering Innovation Podcast and Radio Series

Mars Life Support

PostedAugust 8, 2019

Lede: Mars has a harsh environment. So, in anticipation of human travel there, engineers are working on ways to make parts of the planet more hospitable for life.

Randy Atkins: Mars has the light and carbon dioxide needed for plant growth…but two of the biggest obstacles to any life there are the planet’s freezing temperatures and lack of an atmosphere that protects from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. So Robin Wordsworth, a professor at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is creating a warming barrier out of silica aerogel.

Robin Wordsworth: This remarkable substance is over 97% air and extremely light, nearly transparent, but because it has this complex structure it’s one of the most insulating materials. So it’s really strong at warming and it also blocks damaging ionizing radiation.

Randy Atkins: Wordsworth says thin layers of the aerogel could, for example, be built into transparent dome structures on Mars icecaps…melting the ice beneath for water plants could use to grow, while safely shielded inside.     

Robin Wordsworth: You can imagine it getting as large as you want it to on the Martian surface, covering entire craters ultimately.

Randy Atkins: Meanwhile, Wordsworth says initial lab tests here on Earth have been promising. With the National Academy of Engineering, Randy Atkins, WTOP News.