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Science and Innovations

Can You Build Houses on Mars with Local Material?

Antonio Paris

Some scientists who study Mars also study Northern Arizona. That’s because our lava fields and water-carved canyons are similar to Martian terrain. It’s a good place to test out whether future colonists on Mars would be able to build houses out of local materials. That’s what astronomer Antonio Paris of St. Petersburg College in Florida is doing. He’s traveling the Colorado Plateau collecting soil samples to see if they’ll make good cement. He told KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny, if works here, it might also work on Mars.

So where did you get these samples from in Arizona? 

This one was from the Grand Canyon. As you can see this fine red regolith is a result of oxidation, millions and million years of oxidation. That’s a fancy word for rust, right, your bike gets rusted if it’s exposed to oxygen and water. We all know that the Grand Canyon millions and millions of years ago was a big ocean, so can we use this as cement if we find the proper bonding agent? And this here is hematite, which is an iron ore, it’s very heavy. Can we grind this with a particular bonding agent and make cement?

That’s really cool. So the idea is that astronauts would be able to make houses entirely with the material that’s there on Mars.

That would be the most economical, because rockets can only bring so much…. So we need to, just like early explorers during the frontier times, we actually have to use the resources that are available to us on the Red Planet…. For example, we cannot live on the surface of Mars because the radiation hazards and the thin atmosphere is susceptible to the dangers of micrometeorites. So do we live underground? … Or can we use the resources there, including hematite, the regolith, and can we build upward, can we make cement out of the regolith that’s there? That’s the primary goal, is for me to take back some of this material that we collected. We’re going to grind it down, we’re going to run it through the spectrometer to see what elements are there. I have the material. Now is there is some type of bonding or chemical agenda on the Martian surface that we can use to grind this up, make a cement, and start building habitats using the resources there.

What would you say are the biggest challenges to getting people to Mars, either physical or maybe psychological?

It is, from a psychological perspective, very difficult. These first missions to Mars are going to be small spacecraft, 4 to 6 crewmembers. They’re not going to be these massive spacecraft like you see in the movies, like The Martian. I tell my students, if you want to go to Mars, the best training for that is, I want you to go home tonight, get into your mom’s minivan, black out the windows, and I want you sit in that minivan for eight months. By the way, no Wi-Fi, no texting, none of that stuff, just bring a couple of books. They’ll go what, that’s crazy! Well that’s what it’s going to be like.

Given all those difficulties, why go? Why do you think it’s important that we go?

Well, there’s different reasons. As a species, humans, if we are to live long term, we would have to. Earth does have a lifespan. Mercury had a lifespan and it died long ago. Venus had a lifespan and it died long ago. Earth also has a lifespan. Depending on where you look that lifespan could be 200 million years to 2 billion years. That sun will expand outwardly eventually and become a red giant and adios Earth, right? Earth will be a nice fried little planet. We think Mars will survive will the expansion of the red giant, so humans would have to leapfrog further and further out to the solar system in the next few thousand years if we’re to survive as a species. And then the second one is just from an adventure, from a frontier perspective, humans have always expanded outwardly. If you put those two together, space is the next destination for us.

Sounds good. Thanks so much, I appreciate it.

Thank you!

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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