Scientists recently found that simulated Martian soil can be packed together into a sturdy, brick-like material...without ANY additional ingredients to hold it together. This is a pretty big deal considering when and if we get to Mars we want to maximize the amount of life-support and other necessities the astronauts can take with them.
This means that real Martian soil could be utilized as a tool for building structures, habitats, and more on the surface of Mars - making human missions a little less complicated.
So, how did we get here? Well, a group of engineers were testing simulated Martian soil, specifically called "Mars soil simulant."This simulant is a collection of rocks which have the same chemical makeup as the dirt found on mars, they even tried to mimic the shape and size of Martian grains! After some testing, the engineers figured out that adding juuuust the right amount of pressure was enough to form the soil into trim, stiff blocks...that are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete!
This is a lot more simple than how we currently make our construction materials on earth. Usually there is an adhesive or binder introduced to the material in order to get the materials to keep a fixed shape.
Yu Qiao, a structural engineer at UC San Diego, and the lead researcher, says “It gives the soil strength when it’s compacted." Of course, we're still not 100% sure of this, as the test subject was just a simulated soil. But, it is a great inspiration to think that there will be some usable materials on Mars. The less people have to rely on shipped materials, back-up cargo, and other missions...the better.
Not to mention, because of the gravity, things like building, swinging a hammer, and other construction-based tasks are easier on the body.
Before Qiao and his team began working on this, many other scientists have tried finding similar solutions to building on Mars. For example, bringing microbes o Mars that could feed on human waste, thus creating a binder materials. Others have proposed that perhaps bringing some kind of heating device to bake the soil into bricks would help. However, we might just need a few good hammers.
The above image is from Wikimedia Commons and is liscensed under Creative Commons - source is credited as 'ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.