To build shelters and make tools, astronauts may need to bring only one key ingredient – minerals into lifeless Martian soil that can do the rest, a new study published Wednesday said.
The key ingredient is chitin, a fibrous substance that is a component of the cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects, and the scales of fish and amphibians.
Chitin it can be combined with surface soil from early Martian settlers to produce new material without special equipment and with little energy, said researchers at Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The chitin used on Mars, the study said, may have come from insects. Given their high protein content, insects can be part of a crew mission diet. The authors say that chitin extraction will be a by-product of the crew’s food supply and consumption.
To test their theory, the scientists combined chitosan, an organic polymer made from shrimp, and a mineral designed to mimic the properties of Martian soil.
Water and some basic chemicals are used in the production process. The water, according to the study, can be obtained from the underground ice of Mars. Sodium hydroxide can be obtained from Martian soil. And acetic acid can be obtained by fermentation of microorganisms – such as food waste.
The researchers then used the material to construct a wrench and a model of a Martian habitat, which they believed demonstrated that the material could allow the rapid production of objects as basic tools and hard shelters.
The key the scientists made was not as strong as the one made of metal, but Fernandez said it met NASA’s criteria for “non-critical space applications.”
Fernandez described the study as evidence of the concept. The team did not test the objects in conditions that mimic the cold and dry atmosphere of Mars.
“We have a way to … produce buildings to tools from 3D printing to die casting with just one material.”