'Aerogel' Sheets For Martian Gardens

Ah, that pesky food problem when on Mars. How to grow crops in such a barren wasteland?

The harsh environment on Mars has always made growing food a daunting prospect, but scientists believe they have cracked the problem with sheets of material that can transform the cold, arid surface into land fit for farming.

The “aerogel” sheets work by mimicking Earth’s greenhouse effect, where energy from the sun is trapped on the planet by carbon dioxide and other gases. Spread out in the right places on Mars, the sheets would warm the ground and melt enough subsurface ice to keep plants alive.

Robin Wordsworth, who worked on the sheets at Harvard University, said: “If we want to make sustainable habitats on another planet using present-day technology, this approach could be very useful. It’s completely scalable, so the area covered could be anywhere from a few square metres to large regions of the planet.”

The aerogel used to make the sheets is composed 97% of air, with the rest made up of a light silica network. The researchers, including scientists at Nasa and the University of Edinburgh, showed that 2cm- to 3cm-thick sheets of silica aerogel blocked harmful UV rays, allowed visible light through for photosynthesis and trapped enough heat to melt frozen water locked in Martian soil.

“Placing silica aerogel shields over sufficiently ice-rich regions of the Martian surface could therefore allow photosynthetic life to survive there with minimal subsequent intervention,” the researchers wrote in Nature Astronomy. The sheets could be laid directly on the ground to grow algae and aquatic plants, or suspended to provide room for land plants to grow beneath them.

Sounds a lot like Golden Age science fiction writer Raymond Z. Gallun's asteroid garden from his excellent 1951 novella Asteroid of Fear:

Now he started unrolling great bolts of a transparent, wire-strengthened plastic. Patching with an adhesive where explosion-rents had to be repaired, he cut hundred-yard strips, and, with Rose's help, laid them edge to edge and fastened them together to make a continuous sheet. Next, all around its perimeter, he dug a shallow trench. The edges of the plastic were then attached to massive metal rails, which he buried in the trench.

"Sealed to the ground along all the sides, Honey," he growled to Rose.

Under ideal conditions, the inside of the great bubble was soon a mass of growing things. Rose had planted flowers—to be admired, and to help out the hive of bees, which were essential to some of the other plants, as well. Nor was the flora limited to the Earthly. Some seeds or spores had survived, here, from the mother world of the asteroids...
(Read more about Gallun's asteroid garden)

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