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Making bricks on Mars

By David, 25 May 2017 News

An illustration of an underground Mars base.

A future Mars base could be made from Mars dirt!
Image: NASA

If you’ve ever dreamed of living on Mars, you’ve probably realised you’ll need a place to live. That’s one reason to be excited about Martian brick research being conducted by scientists in the United States. Recently, a team showed that it’s actually quite easy to make bricks out of Mars dirt. But how did they get the dirt to test in the first place?

Mars is a long way away from Earth. Which is why every mission to Mars has been a one-way trip. Scientists have never sent a sample of Mars back to Earth. But decades of experiments on rovers, landers and orbital spaceships means we know quite a lot about Martian dust.

About 20 years ago, NASA went looking on Earth for rocks like those on Mars. The best match they found was some glassy ash at a volcano in Hawaii. This ash had a similar chemical makeup to Mars dirt, and it was close to the same colour in visible light and in ultraviolet and infrared. NASA collected quite a lot of this dirt, and named it ‘JSC MARS-1’. When they ran out of this first batch, they commissioned a company to make an improved dirt, called ‘JSC MARS-1A’.

Back to making bricks. A team from the University of California started with a sample of NASA dirt, but they still needed to improve it to make it more Mars-like. Mars is a lot drier than Earth, so the team baked the dirt for 12 hours in an oven at 600 degrees Celsius. After cooling, the team had something close to real Mars dirt.

To turn the dirt into bricks, the team simply squeezed! They set up several different experiments, using a both a press and falling hammers. In all their tests, the dirt came together to make a solid lump, as strong as steel-reinforced concrete.

That’s great news for future Mars explorers. With easy to make bricks, it should be a snap to build a new home on a distant planet. But we’ll still need to do tests on the real thing, just to make sure it works!

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