Top 5 Technologies That Will Make Mars Habitable

Top 5 Technologies That Will Make Mars Habitable

From silica aerogel to MOXIE, these revolutionary technologies are bringing us a step closer to making Mars home!

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, has long captivated the curiosity of scientists. Some of the most intelligent minds—Buzz Aldrin, Neil Degras Tyson and Stephen Hawking—agree that humankind should work towards occupying Mars. And there is a good reason for that. When life on Earth was evolving, Mars was going through significant climate change. Studying the red planet, both its past and present, can help us understand the details of the evolution of Earth and other planets in the solar system. 

Besides, scientists have found evidence of water on Mars that could be harvested for human consumption. Consequently, we are seeing the emergence of projects like Artemis 1, which intends to establish a human presence on Mars by 2028. But the million-dollar question is: How will this plan, or any other plan to colonize Mars come to fruition? Here are some of the technologies that have been developed or are currently being developed, that will help make life on Mars possible. 

Silica aerogel

Silica aerogel is a porous, lightweight translucent material used for high-temperature insulation. Its insulating properties are so potent that, in 2019, researchers from Harvard University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab found that silica aerogel could mimic the greenhouse effect on Mars. What makes Mars uninhabitable right now is the low temperatures and high levels of ultraviolet radiation. The researchers believe that a 2-3 cm thick silica aerogel layer would transmit sufficient life for photosynthesis, help block out the radiation and raise temperatures above the melting point of water. 

Ethylene-emitting cyanobacteria

Mars’ atmosphere is made up of 95% carbon dioxide (CO2). In 2021, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the U.S. and its partner biotechnology company Nzyme2HC came up with the idea of harnessing this CO2 supply to make ethylene. To do so, it is using ethylene-emitting cyanobacteria (bacteria that obtain energy from photosynthesis) created by NREL scientists in 2012. Creating ethylene (an integral component of plastics) from the CO2 supply on Mars could help astronauts readily produce the building materials needed for a Mars colony. 

MOXIE

While the red planet has a lot of CO2, its atmosphere only consists of 0.6% molecular oxygen. This means, to make life possible on the planet, scientists need to find a way for us to breathe. To help solve this problem, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). MOXIE is a lunchbox-sized device that collects atmospheric CO2 and heats it to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, splitting it into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The device is still in the experimental stages but has been successful in producing oxygen seven different times

Nuclear thermal propulsion 

Another major barrier is traveling back and forth between Earth and Mars. There is a distance of 33.9 million miles between the two planets, and it takes seven months to travel from one to the other, kicking off at a speed of about 39,600 km per hour. To tackle this issue, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work on nuclear thermal propulsion technology for rockets. This technology provides a high thrust and propels the rocket much faster than chemical rockets. Reducing the travel time will help cut down the supplies needed for inter-planet travel. While the technology isn’t ready yet, NASA says it intends to make it possible by 2027. 

Fuel-generating microbes

Given how far the two planets are from each other, it would be greatly beneficial to have a source of fuel on Mars as well. In 2021, the Georgia Institute of Technology suggested that microbes could be carried to Mars to produce fuel on the red planet. These microbes are cyanobacteria (which converts carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen) and an engineered variety of E.colii (which converts the extracted sugar into a fuel called 2,3-butanediol). 

To give these microbes the environment to be functional, plastic materials would have to be carried to Mars which would then be assembled into photobioreactors for the microbes. Besides creating fuel, the process also generates 44 tons of excess clean oxygen. This process of producing fuel on Mars would reduce power consumption by 32% as compared to the current method (carrying methane and liquid oxygen reserves to the planet). 

From creating oxygen to reducing fuel costs and eliminating radiation, evolving technologies solve the many problems associated with Mars colonization. It opens up possibilities for sustained human habitation on the planet. As we continue to push the boundaries of scientific and technological innovation, we can look forward to a future where humans are not only Earthbound but also interplanetary, with Mars being the first step in our journey to the stars.

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Header image courtesy of Envato.

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