Future space missions will aim at visiting and establishing bases in the Moon and the Red Planet. Those missions will require the development of settlements but, from what material those buildings will be constructed is still a puzzle.
According to a new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE on September 16, 2020, chitin, a long-chain polymer which is primarily found in the scales of fish and the cell walls of fungi, can be used for building shelters in Mars.
The organic polymer is in abundance on Earth and it can be grown in the Red Planet once a biosphere is established. Scientists suggest that when it is mixed with Martian soil, a strong mixture that can be used as a construction material will emerge.
The team put their concept to the test by combining chitin with regolith, a mineral that resembles the Martian soil. The chemical procedure requires water which will be extracted from the subsurface of the Red Planet.
Researchers managed to construct small scale objects made out of the new material. In terms of sustainability, its strength was not optimum but it was enough to meet NASA's demands regarding non-critical space applications. "It feels like concrete but much lighter. Very light rock," Javier Fernandez, co-author of the study and an Assistant Professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), stated.
What is important regarding the properties of the mixture is that it provides protection from the intense solar radiation that devastates Mars. Therefore, visitors in the future can be safely accommodated in shelters made of it.
Prof. Fernandez stated that the new approach was initially designed to feed ecosystems on Earth but scientists then realized its true potential. "The technology was originally developed to create circular ecosystems in urban environments, but due to its efficiency, it is also the most efficient and scalable method to produce materials in a closed artificial ecosystem in the extremely scarce environment of a lifeless planet or satellite," he mentioned.
The research is still in its initial phases. Scientists have not yet tested the material in harsh conditions that can mimic Mars environment. As Prof. Fernandez admitted, the present study is basically a "proof of concept".
Nevertheless, certain decisions about its applicability in the future have to be made soon. NASA is planning a crewed mission on Mars by the late 2030s while SpaceX could send a manned space ship to the Red Planet as early as 2024.