On the slopes of Mauna Loa, a massive volcano on the island of Hawaii, lava floes aren't just an impressive part of the scenery. For a group of Hawaiian scientists, lava rocks are the key to how humans might build habitats on the moon and Mars. Hawaii's lava rock is similar enough to space rock that researchers can study the living conditions of a potential Mars colony, as well as how space colonists could use the rock around them to build structures, tools and even fabric.
Earth's closest neighbors, the Moon and Mars, don't have accessible water, but they do have a lot of rock. If humans build extraterrestrial habitats off-planet, scientists want to put all that rock to good use. The volcanic terrain on Hawaii's Big Island has a chemical composition similar enough to the stuff of Moon and Mars to give us a good idea of what we can make.
Researchers from PISCES (Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems), a state agency spun out of the University of Hawaii, turn lava rock into tools using a heat treatment with ground-up rock. It doesn't quite melt, but turns into a pliable solid that can be then shaped into different forms, like this wrench mold you see here.
Everything you see here was fashioned from Hawaiian basalt (lava) crushed into fine powder. Whatever you make from that, researcher reason, could also be composed from "regolith," the name for the layer of lunar or Martian dust and small pieces of rock that sits on top the solid rock of those planetary bodies.
This red paver made on Hawaii can withstand more weight than the concrete used in home building projects, Romo said. PISCES used pavers like this to simulate how inhabitants of an off-planet base could make a landing pad/launchpad for spacecraft, out of local rock.
Fibers, like this gold cloth, are also made from basalt. The process is a lot like carbon fiber or glass fiber. It's made by extruding melted rock into fine filaments and weaving those filaments together into fabric and thermal insulation. You could also use it as a radiation shield as part of a space suit.
The project to experiment with tools on Earth goes hand in hand with another project under way on the Big Island. HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, is a habitat to prepare research teams for life on Mars. HI-SEAS is funded in part by a NASA grant.