One of the problems that explorers on Mars will face is low surface temperature. Although the surface temperature on Mars can rise above freezing in the summer, the mean temperature is about -60?C (-90?C at night). Mars' orbit is highly elliptical which leads to even greater cold in winter - temperatures as low as -110?C on the poles.

Rigel Woida, an engineering student at University of Arizona, Tucson, has been awarded a $9,000 NIAC (NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) Student Fellows Prize to study the use of large orbital mirrors to heat a small area of the Martian surface. Raising the temperature in a 150 acre patch would make it easier and more economical for humans to study the Red Planet.

Woida's prize-winning project is titled "The Road to Mars." Optical sciences Professor Eustace Dereniak and Assistant Research Professor Robert M. Stone will supervise Woida on the project.

Orbiting balloons made of a reflective metallized polyester would act as mirrors, collecting sunlight and shine it down to the Martian surface.

"I adjusted the aperture so the reflector would heat ... (the) surface to roughly Tucson daytime illumination and temperatures, said Woida. "Eventually, using techniques like these, humans might cultivate plants on Mars."

The higher temperatures would allow astronauts to survive without heavily insulated suits or living quarters, increasing comfort while reducing costs. Added sunlight would increase output from solar power cells on the surface; it might also melt ice at or just below the surface, making it available for human use.

Although still a student, Woida is no stranger to scientifc achievement. In high school, he was the driving force behind the construction of Tucson High Magnet School's thirty-inch telescope. After coming up with the idea, he successfully raised the necessary financial support from the school district, a private laboratory and the University of Arizona.

There is a rather unusual precedent for this idea in science fiction. Fallen Angels, a 1991 novel written by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn, contains a scene in which people are fleeing across a glacier without the necessary equipment to survive the -30 degree (F) temperatures. They survive by having a satellite focus a "spotlight" of solar-generated microwave energy onto their location:

"Big Momma, it's cold here. We're going to freeze, all of us. We need heat. Can you give us a microwave spotlight? Have SUNSAT lock one of its projectors onto our transponder frequency and track us across the ice."

"Skazhiyte. One moment." Alex waited while Big Momma conferred - probably with the Peace Station chief and the SUNSAT engineer. Sherrine asked him what he was doing and he told her...

"Is that possible?" she asked. "To beam enough microwave energy down to keep us from freezing? ...It won't be too much, will it?"

Alex grinned. "I'll have them set it for thaw, not bake...

(Read more about Spotlight of Heat)

Woida's plan is also not without potential hazards; the mirrors could focus harmful high-frequency radiation like gamma rays onto the surface. This problem might be solved by using a coating on the balloons that reflected only visible and infrared light, says Woida.

Read about these other unusual proposed projects, each with a science-fictional twist:

Learn more about the Martian surface temperature and conditions. Read more about Rigel Woida's plans here and here. Thanks to BajaB for the tip on this story.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from - where science meets fiction.)