Getting humans to Mars is one thing, but they’ll also need to be able to survive on the surface to stay for any great length of time.
With that in mind, scientists have been looking at ways to use Martian soil to create tools and objects on Mars, reducing the number of things future astronauts need to take with them. Often that has focused on using expensive machinery to turn the soil into something useful.
But in a new study by the University of California San Diego and funded by NASA, published in Scientific Reports today, scientists accidentally discovered that you can use the soil in its current form to create bricks, which may be useful for building structures on the Red Planet.
It’s pretty cool really. The engineers were working out how to reduce the amount of additional polymers they needed to turn Martian soil into bricks. But they found that when they reduced the number of polymers (or binders) to nothing and applied pressure equivalent to a hammer blow, the soil became rigid and solid.
"We noticed that we can lower the binder to very low (about 1 percent) and the material still developed a strength," Yu Qiao, from UC San Diego and the study's lead author, told IFLScience. "That made us realise that there must be something interesting about the Martian soil simulant itself, not just the added binder."
The soil before being cut into a brick. David Baillot/Brian J. Chow/Yu Qiao
Of course, they weren’t using actual Martian soil, but simulated soil based on its known composition. Before applying the pressure, the soil needed to be enclosed in a flexible container, in this instance a rubber tube. When hit, it then produced small chunks about an inch tall that could be cut into brick shapes.
The reason? Well, the researchers think it might be due to iron oxide, which gives Mars its red color, acting as a binding agent. The next step will be to find a way to make the bricks bigger, so they can be used for practical purposes on the surface of Mars.
The current plan for NASA is to get humans into orbit around Mars in the early 2030s, possibly landing on its moon Phobos. Then, by 2039, they hope to have humans on the ground.
"The people who will go to Mars will be incredibly brave. They will be pioneers,” Qiao said in a statement. “And I would be honored to be their brick maker.”