To build shelters and produce tools, astronauts may need to carry just one key ingredient – with minerals in lifeless Martian soil capable of doing the rest, a new study released 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 could be combined with surface soil by early Martian settlers to produce a new material without special equipment and using little energy, researchers at Singapore University of Technology and Design said.
Chitin for use on Mars, the study said, may have come from insects. Given their high protein content, insects could be part of the diet for a manned mission. The authors argued that chitin extraction would be a by-product of the crew’s food procurement and consumption.
To test their theory, the scientists combined chitosan, an organic shrimp-based polymer, and a mineral designed to mimic the properties of Martian soil.
The manufacturing process used water and some basic chemicals. The water, the study says, could be obtained from underground ice on Mars. Sodium hydroxide could be produced from Martian soil. And acetic acid could be produced from the fermentation of microorganisms, such as food waste.
The researchers then used the material to build a wrench and model of a Martian habitat, which showed that the material could allow the rapid production of objects such as basic tools and rigid shelters.
The wrench the scientists made wasn’t as strong as a metal one, but Fernandez said it met NASA’s criteria for “non-critical space applications.”
Fernandez described the research as a proof of concept. The team did not test the objects in conditions that mimicked Mars’ cold, dry atmosphere.
“We have a path to … the production of buildings and tools, from 3D printing to in-mold casting with just one material.”