RPP Blog (#37) Building Mars: Modeling Permanent Structures Using Mars-Sourced Materials [4.7.18]

By: Lorena Bueno, Guest Blogger

Red Planet Pen (RPP) Blog, Issue #37

Crack open any mid-level science novel from the last 70 years and you’ll find, among fanciful descriptions of grand canals and sand-scattering weather systems, varied descriptions of what’s underfoot (or boot): Martian sand. Regolith, powder, basalt rock, even clay, hint at a time when Mars had enough water and geologic activity to create clay.

As we plan our first trips to Mars on Earth with the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) of the Mars Society, the next few missions on Mars will give us more data on the clay deposits of our near neighbor. With this data we can add clay-based structures to our plans of more permanent structures.

What can we do with clay?

If the clay deposits are significant enough, this ancient building material may give us one of the first resources we can use to help protect and define the boundaries of our research and colonization outposts. While our first clay bricks may be as handmade as those first made on Earth, we’ll bring with us approximately 9,000 years of advanced knowledge and technology. We’d start by studying how clay behaves in the environment of Mars before and after it is shaped into usable chunks. A team of engineers at the University of California San Diego has already created no-bake brick samples out of simulated “Martian Soil”.

While ancient Earthlings mixed, shaped, and dried their bricks outside in sunny, warm climates, that won’t work as well on Mars. We’ll need to create processes on Earth to simulate the kind of brickworks we can create in Mars’ atmosphere (1/100th of our atmosphere here on Earth) or in a pressurized habitat. These experiments will help us figure out how to keep the mixture of clay, water, and other ingredients together long enough to be shaped and finished.

After test bricks of various recipes are created, we’ll simulate how well the bricks wear in a Mars-like environment. First, each type of brick will be tested individually to see how it reacts to the extreme heat and freezing cold temperatures characteristic of a typical Martian day during any season.

Next, we’ll subject the bricks to weather testing: blowing the bricks through a series of Martian storms. Despite what we’ve seen in the movies, the winds of Mars don’t do nearly as much damage as a comparable storm on Earth. Winds on Mars don’t get higher than 60 or 70 miles per hour. That much wind speed on Earth would knock you over! But with Mars’ 1% atmospheric pressure, 60 mph on Mars would feel like 6 mph on Earth just about enough to launch and fly a medium-sized kite.

Then we’ll move on to testing bricks in groups. Studying bricks of different sizes and shapes, set up as solid walls and berms, will determine how they withstand the weather, wind, and dust storms of Mars. We may even skip shaping blocks directly, and simply make a brick “mix” that can be sprayed or extruded into the shapes we need to build our permanent structures.

Building walls on Mars… with math

Constructing a protective barrier from Martian-sourced bricks provides its own special engineering challenges. Modern bricks on our planet are bound together using specialized adhesives and mortars; Mars’ thin atmosphere makes those solutions unworkable.

The solution lies in the way the bricks are shaped and stacked. Interlocking bricks, laid in deep, long patterns, can be built up enough to serve as weather berms. By directing the worst gusts of stronger windstorms away from habitats or remote sensor arrays, we can extend the life of the buildings we bring from Earth.

Simple structures can be built with a combination of Earth and Mars materials as well. While we have to live in pressurized habitats, movable equipment, such as rovers or trailers, may only need a simpler protective shelter. Picture a basic structure made up of brick walls topped with solar panels. These shelters can be built around a metal or composite frame with a protective door to keep out the worst of the blowing sands.

We can set up a series of emergency maze-style shelters as well. A shelter you can drive in and out of, designed to keep sand out during a sudden storm. Stage these along known trails or byways to help keep travel between far-flung sites safe.

Though solar panels are a popular means for capturing energy in most of our plans for Mars, we can also corral and use the energy created by the planet’s vast winds. Mars-made bricks might be used to create funnels designed to speed wind through specialized wind turbines, hardened to work on Mars and provide power backup during the worst of the hemispheric or global storms.

Reducing the costs of exploration – Getting more with less

As a species, every dollar we spend learning and exploring lifts us higher. Once we’ve done the hard work of getting the first explorers to our neighboring planet, everything we do there, along with the support of those teams, will make it easier for the next generation of explorers and humans watching from afar.

As humans, we’ve spent our history expanding our horizons, finding new ways to innovate and grow. Taking that tradition, and all we’ve learned, to Mars and beyond, is in our DNA. Sure we can send modules, supplies, food, and people to Mars. However building or augmenting or augmenting permanent structures from local materials gives us more than a way to save money; we can learn from and apply science in the field and export it back “home”.

~Humans to Mars as a Bridge to the Stars

Edited by: Margaret Lattke