What space explorers might live in once they get to Mars

Science Friday
A block of Martian concrete made out of Martian soil simulant created by engineers at Northwestern University. Image courtesy of Northwestern University

A block of Martian concrete made out of Martian soil simulant created by engineers at Northwestern University. 

Courtesy of Northwestern University

NASA just got an extra $1.3 billion added to its budget for 2016. Part of this budget is set to be used to develop a deep space habitation module. The deep space dwelling would be a ship that a crew could live and work out of — perhaps even on a journey to Mars.

The deadline for the prototype is 2018, giving NASA just two years to develop the technology. 

Bruce Lieberman, a freelance science writer based in San Diego, California, says the habitation module will likely be something inflatable, made from a certain type of fabric. 

“These are not party balloons. ... You might think of astronauts bouncing around in these giant party homes but that's not that's not what it is,” Lieberman says. “It’s a rigidised, inflatable habitat that has numerous layers of protection and a thermal blanket covering. This is something that could be conceivably attached to a propulsion system that would give astronauts a lot of living space on their way to a destination, whether it's an asteroid or Mars or the moon.”

No one is sure exactly what the prototype will look like. The construction is proprietary, meaning NASA and Bigelow Aerospace, the company working on the technology, are keeping its design under wraps. Lieberman, however, says it will likely be made from a Kevlar-like fabric that has several advantages. 

“It's relatively cheap compared to other modules, it's lightweight, it’s compact, and it has some advantages to aluminum pressure vessels as far as radiation protection,” Lieberman says, “[The] Kevlar-like fabric would help protect astronauts from orbital debris that's orbiting the Earth and also micrometeoroids.” 

Other researchers have been working on using materials natural to other planets to come up with ways of building habitats for future astronauts. Gianluca Cusatis, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, says he and his students have come up with a way to make cement from Martian soil. 

“The idea came from previous research in NASA where they were exploring cement on the Moon and because you don't think about shipping the cement and wood and water and gravel, which are the main components of concrete here on Earth, they explored using sulfur to bind and to glue together the lunar soil,” Cusatis says. “The technology's really very simple. You melt the sulfur and then it becomes liquid and then you mix with the martian soil and then it hardens and it is a solid and possible construction material.”

The advantage to using concrete is that it makes a good shield against radiation, as well as debris from any meteorites on Mars. And using sulfur in the mix means that Martian concrete would be about twice as strong as the concrete regularly used on Earth. There are drawbacks, however: “Being still sulfur-based, it melts back to liquid if you heat it up. So in a case of fire or high temperature, definitely that is not something that you want to have in your house,” Cusatis says. 

Cusatis and his team have not yet been contacted by NASA about their experiments with making concrete from Martian soil. Building skyscrapers or concrete homes on Mars is still far in the distant future. There are, however, a number of other projects that the new NASA funding is making a possibility. 

One in the near future is building the necessary components needed to launch astronauts into space from US soil. 

“NASA had been saying it was on track to do that by the end of 2017,” Berger says. “It said if it did not get full funding for commercial crew this time, that that date was going to slip into 2018 or beyond. So basically it was putting Republicans in the House and the Senate in the position of, if they didn't fund it, they were going to look like they were willing to spend money on the Russian defense program.”

Other exciting projects on NASA’s horizon? A possible launch for a trip to Jupiter’s moon, Europa by 2022 or 2023. 

“Europa is fascinating place,” Berger says. “It's covered in ice it's bathed in radiations from Jupiter’s surface ... but beneath the surface is an ocean. There's more water on Europa than there is on Earth and there's a heat source, because you have this tidal flexing of the core of Europa and so if you're going to look for life that's living now in the solar system today, it's probably the best place to look.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.