A scientist just cracked the code for building on Mars


If humans ever do stay on Mars long-term, chances are we will need to be able to build some structures without having to ship all the materials 50 million miles from Earth. But this requires making building materials on Mars itself, which is no easy task. At least, that used to be the case, as new research may have found a shockingly easy way to make Martian brick.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of California, San Diego explain that it should be possible to turn Martian soil into brick by doing little more than applying some pressure. Just hitting a sample of the Martian surface with a ten-pound hammer — or at least doing something that would create an equivalent amount of pressure — should make the soil compress into a material stronger than steel-reinforced concrete.

Moving to Mars during Donald Trump's presidency:

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Moving to Mars during Donald Trump's presidency

1. Scouting missions

What Musk wrote: "Heart of Gold spaceship flies to Mars loaded only with equipment to build the propellant plant."

Once SpaceX has mastered "how to land without adding a crater" on Mars, unlike the recent ExoMars 2016 mission — may the Schiaparelli lander rest in pieces — it will build the pieces of a full-scale methane fuel depot.

Musk's first spaceship, the "Heart of Gold" (named after the ship in the famous sci-fi series "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), would drop off those tools and components for a future mission.

The reason? ITS spaceships wouldn't carry enough fuel to return to Earth.

"It'd be pretty absurd to try to build the city on Mars if your spaceship just kept staying on Mars not going back to Earth. You'd have this, like, massive graveyard of ships," he said in September. "You really want to build a propellant plant on Mars and send the ships back."

Before the Reddit AMA, it wasn't clear how or when Musk planned to get a propellant plant to Mars.

(Photo by Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images)

2. Drop off a full-scale fuel factory

What Musk wrote: "Heart of Gold spaceship flies to Mars loaded only with equipment to build the propellant plant."

Once SpaceX has mastered "how to land without adding a crater" on Mars, unlike the recent ExoMars 2016 mission — may the Schiaparelli lander rest in pieces — it will build the pieces of a full-scale methane fuel depot.

Musk's first spaceship, the "Heart of Gold" (named after the ship in the famous sci-fi series "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), would drop off those tools and components for a future mission.

The reason? ITS spaceships wouldn't carry enough fuel to return to Earth.

"It'd be pretty absurd to try to build the city on Mars if your spaceship just kept staying on Mars not going back to Earth. You'd have this, like, massive graveyard of ships," he said in September. "You really want to build a propellant plant on Mars and send the ships back."

Before the Reddit AMA, it wasn't clear how or when Musk planned to get a propellant plant to Mars.

Photo Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

3. The pioneering crewed mission

What Musk wrote: "First crewed mission with equipment to build rudimentary base and complete the propellant plant."

If the first group of volunteers delivered to Mars by SpaceX want to finish building a propellant plant to get home, they'll first need to build a habitat, power it, breathe, grow food, recycle water, and more.

These challenges have occupied the minds of space exploration researchers around the world for the better part of 50 years, but Musk if has his way, Business Insider UK's Rob Price writes, "The first Martian colonists will live in giant glass domes and using mining robots to help expand their homes" — that's according to Musk's response to Reddit user Ulysius.

The name of the first colony? "Mars Base Alpha," Musk told Reddit user theZcuber on Sunday.

Once Mars Base Alpha is built, colonists would use their habitats as a home base to assemble the propellant plant delivered by the uncrewed "Heart of Gold" mission.

The technical details about all of these incredible feats of engineering are thin at best, even after Musk's AMA. But if he can get it done and launch that fuel into Martian orbit, then the sky really is the limit.

"If you have all of those four elements, you can actually go anywhere in the solar system by planet-hopping or by moon-hopping," Musk said in September.

Photo Credit: SpaceX/Youtube

4. Colonize Mars

What Musk wrote: "Try to double the number of flights with each Earth-Mars orbital rendezvous, which is every 26 months, until the city can grow by itself."

Any space colony may need only 10,000 volunteers for basic genetic viability (to avoid the negative effects of inbreeding), one researcher told Popular Mechanics.

But Musk isn't merely interested in surviving: He wants a city on Mars, including everything from "iron foundries to pizza joints," he said in September. Hence, a million people — a ballpark figure for a thriving city of a population between that of Austin, Texas, and San Jose, California.

With a functional Mars base and a way to make methane, SpaceX and its collaborators — perhaps Boeing — could start sending very expensive equipment back to Earth for reuse every 26 months, which is when Mars and Earth are separated by tens of millions of miles instead of about 140 million miles.

This should theoretically increase the opportunities to send more people and gear to flesh out a permanent Martian metropolis, since all of the ITS gear is reusable (similar to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket boosters).

To support that exodus, Musk would have to keep launching more and more fuel pods into orbit around Earth, since they can hook up to ITS spaceships and fill up their tanks.

However, Musk said in September that anyone who goes on these journeys must be "prepared to die."

"The first journey to Mars is going to be really very dangerous," Musk said. "The risk of fatality will be high. There's just no way around it."

Luckily for anyone who gets into trouble on Mars, Musk told Reddit user __Rocket__ on Sunday, each ITS spaceship would have enough fuel to expedite medical supplies and critical replacements to Mars — no matter how far away the planet is from Earth.

Photo Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

Is this feasible?

Even with the new details, Musk has many more holes to fill in, plus he faces an extreme amount of testing and expense in the coming months and years to be sure his plan will work.

And knowing the words "delayed" and "space mission" appear together more often than not, we doubt Mars will be a significant option for expatriation during Trump's tenure.

But could Musk's plan work at all — even with help from other companies and the will of Earth behind him?

John Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute who was in the audience for Musk's talk in Mexico (and watched Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon in 1969), is intensely skeptical.

"I think it's extremely unlikely that something of this scope will happen," Logsdon told Business Insider on September 28. "He minimizes things that will require a fair amount of further research and work. All the drawings of the spaceship, you don't see where 100 people are going to live for months at a time as they wait for Mars on the journey out."

But Logsdon says "never" is a long time, and thinks it is indeed all possible.

"He's laying out a vision, and visions don't have to be consistent and coherent ... if the intent is to motivate people and say 'Look, something like this could technically be done,'" he said.

That is, "If we have the will and money and enough engagement of partners to undertake it."

Photo Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

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Lead researcher Yu Qiao told Vocativ the research is still in its earliest stages, meaning we don't yet know precisely what astronauts would need to bring to Mars to produce such bricks in usably large quantities.

"Our candidate research is on the materials level," he said. "We created coin-sized soil samples to scale up. We still don't what the final system would look like. One possibility is we need a piling system. We need something to lift the hammer and then release the hammer to hit the soil. That would create sufficient pressure to turn it into a brick."

Whatever the case, this should be much easier than what researchers previously thought astronauts might need to do. Earlier plans called for explorers to use complex chemistry or even bring a nuclear-powered kiln to the red planet if they wanted to have building material. But Qiao and his team at UCSD worked with a NASA-created simulation of the Martian soil and found its composition makes it well suited for bricks. That's because Martian soil contains tiny iron oxide compounds that can work to bind a brick together. One type of iron oxide is better known as rust, and it's the presence of such a compound in the soil that gives the planet its famous reddish color.

While the brick was made on Earth, where the gravity is about five times stronger than that of Mars, Qiao told Vocativ that gravity does not appear to be a major factor, and the process they have discovered should work just as well on the red planet.

It will likely be necessary to test that before human arrive, however, with future Martian rovers or probes. But Qiao and his team have some time, considering the current earliest NASA launch date for a crewed mission to Mars isn't until 2033.

"If there's no surprise," said Qiao, "16 years should be enough for materials development."

RELATED: See close-up images of Mars' surface:

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Surface of Mars
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Surface of Mars
Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin, in this photograph taken January 14, 2011 and released by NASA March 9, 2011. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday showed. Researchers found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equatorial region. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on Mars inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water are seen in an image produced by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Arizona. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday showed. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Handout THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars are seen in an image produced by NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Arizona. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday showed. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Handout THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
A circular depression on the surface of Mars is pictured in his image acquired on Jan. 5, 2015 by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), provided by NASA. The spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since March 2006 and completed its 40,000th orbit around Mars on Feb. 7, 2015. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Handout
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's hole drilled into a rock target, "Cumberland," on Mars on May 19, 2013 is shown in this NASA photo. NASA?s Mars rover Curiosity has found carbon-containing compounds in samples drilled out of an ancient rock, the first definitive detection of organics on the surface of Earth?s neighbor planet, scientists said on Tuesday. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (OUTER SPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is shown in this handout photo released to Reuters July 29, 2014. Opportunity has set a new off-Earth, off-road distance record, logging just over 25 miles (40 km) on the surface of the Red Planet to surpass the old benchmark set in 1973 by a Russian probe on the moon. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State University/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
This image from the right Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows rough spherical features on the surface of the planet in an area called 'Yellowknife Bay' in this NASA handout released January 15, 2013. These features are interpreted as concretions, implying they formed in water that percolated through pores in the sediment. Spherical concretions have previously been discovered in other rocks on Mars. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout (OUTERSPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
An image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the surface of the planet with inclined layering known as cross-bedding in an outcrop called "Shaler" on a scale of a few tenths of a meter, or decimeters (1 decimeter is nearly 4 inches) in this NASA handout released January 15, 2013. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout (OUTERSPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
The surface of the planet Mars inside Gale's Crater is shown as NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drives toward a flat rock with pale veins that may hold clues to a wet history on the planet in this NASA handout photo released January 15, 2013. If the rock meets rover engineers' approval when Curiosity rolls up to it in coming days, it will become the first to be drilled for a sample during the Mars Science Laboratory mission. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (OUTERSPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity appears as a bluish dot near the lower right corner of this enhanced-color view from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken on June 27, 2013 and released on July 24, 2013. The rover's tracks are visible extending from the landing site, "Bradbury Landing," in the left half of the scene. Two bright, relatively blue spots surrounded by darker patches are where the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's landing jets cleared away reddish surface dust at the landing site. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout via Reuters (OUTER SPACE - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface in this NASA handout image taken by the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover September 2, 2012 and released September 27, 2012. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Scientists enhanced the color in this version to show the Martian scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
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The post A Scientist Just Cracked The Code For Building On Mars appeared first on Vocativ.

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