We’re using a protein mixed with a simulated Mars soil to make concrete bricks. The project recently was chosen by NASA to go to the International Space Station (ISS). The idea could be really important on Mars, where astronauts would experience a lot of radiation. The bricks could be used to put a lot of mass between people and the outside habitat, and could be made from what’s already on the planet, rather than having to bring building materials from Earth, which is too cost-prohibitive. Being selected for the ISS is an incredible honor. It’s really exciting — and just amazing — that we’re getting to the point where students can start doing research that can directly impact human civilization on other planets.
To know if this concrete is going to be useful on Mars or the moon, we need to know how partial gravity affects the formation of protein bridges between each grain of material, which determines the concrete’s strength. We’d been wondering how to test if this material would behave differently in the one-third gravity of Mars. Now we have this chance to test it for a month in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station. It’s completely game-changing for us.
We’re sending up a box with material to create 24 little bricks — each 1 cm long. Once we get the payload back from NASA, we’ll send it out to be micro CT scanned, which will let us see how the number of protein bridges made in space compare to the number made here on Earth.
What’s especially cool about this project is that we’ll be using citizen scientists to help with it. High school and middle school students will be running the same experiment in their classrooms, and then those students, along with some Girl Scouts, will analyze the CT scans. We’ll be able to use what we learn to influence the design of a brick-making machine that’s underway. We’re also working with the Chabot Space and Science Center to make a kit that can be sent out to kids around the country to make their own bricks. Those will be accompanied with a virtual presentation by our team, explaining the scientific method, what we’re doing, and how we’re going to space.
Mars has been on people’s radar for a long time, but pushes to get there have often been shut down, in part because it’s cost-prohibitive. We’re showing that if you work smarter, and get innovative about how you use materials, you can massively reduce the cost of a mission to Mars by subsisting off the resources that you have there and using them sustainably. It’s a much more feasible option to getting there in the first place.
—Kylie Holland, MS candidate ’22, Symbolic Systems, Phoebe Wall, ’23, Aeronautics & Astronautics, and William Alvero Koski, ’21, Mechanical Engineering