US-For future astronauts bound for Mars it will surely rank as a positive: when they sit down to dinner on the barren red planet, they should at least have plenty of greens.

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.” Should humans ever decide to spread beyond Earth, as the late Stephen Hawking declared we must, then growing food on alien worlds will be a skill that has to be mastered. But on Mars the conditions are hardly conducive. The planet is frigid and dry and bombarded by radiation, the soil contains potentially toxic chemicals and the wispy atmosphere is low on nitrogen.

In the past, scientists and science fiction writers have proposed “terraforming” barren worlds, an approach that calls for the whole atmosphere to be rebuilt. In 1971 the American astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that vaporising the northern polar ice cap on Mars might release enough water into the atmosphere to do the trick.