To build shelters and make tools, astronauts may only need to bring one key ingredient – with minerals in the 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 constituent of cell walls in fungi, exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects, and scales of fish and amphibians.
Chitin could be combined with surface soil by early settlers from Mars to produce a new material without special equipment and using little energy, said researchers from Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The study said the chitin for use on Mars could come from insects. Due to their high protein content, insects could form part of the diet of a herd. The authors said that extraction of chitin would be a by-product of the herd’s food supply and consumption.
To test their theory, the researchers combined chitosan, an organic polymer made from shrimp, and a mineral designed to mimic the properties of Martian soil.
The manufacturing process used water and some basic chemicals. The water, according to the study, could be obtained from underground ice on Mars. Sodium hydroxide could be produced from Martian soil. And acetic acid could be produced by fermentation of microorganisms – such as food waste.
The researchers then used the material to construct a wrench and a model of a maritime habitat, which they said demonstrated that the material could enable the rapid manufacture of objects such as basic tools and rigid shelters.
The wrench the scientists made was not as strong as one made of metal, but Fernandez said it met NASA’s criteria for “non-critical space applications.”
Fernandez described the research as proof of the concept. The team did not test the items under conditions that mimicked Mars’ cold and dry atmosphere.
“We have a way of … manufacturing buildings for tools from 3D printing to molding with just a single material.”