Making things with moon and Mars rock starts with lava on Earth

Space colonists may need to make their own tools or fabric. The learning starts now.


Jessica Dolcourt

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Welcome to 'Mars'

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.

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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.

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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.

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The PISCES project explores how humans dwelling on lunar or Martian bases might live off the land instead of relying solely on resupply missions that take months to arrive.

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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. 

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"The less you can take with you to the moon or Mars, the better off you are," said Rodrigo Romo, the director of PISCES. "Luggage fees to the moon are quite expensive."

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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. 

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The black cube and tools are made with the same process as the red ones, just heated to a higher temperature.

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PISCES is also turning rock dust into molds and tools. When the basalt becomes superheated, it shrinks, which makes precision tool-making a challenge for the PISCES team. 

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Materials made on the moon may be stronger than those made on Earth, said Jeff Taylor, a geologist who works with PISCES.

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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.

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The basalt fiber is surprisingly soft. Not Snuggie-soft, but it isn't terribly scratchy, either.

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This melted rock fabric has excellent thermal insulation properties, Romo said. Basalt fiber can resist a chemical storm or attack. 

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If you can make cloth, you can also make rope.

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The individual strands are very strong. Using them, scientists and future moon or Mars residents can weave a structural mesh that can help reinforce buildings and other structures.

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You can see the mesh to the bottom left. And that cute-looking swizzle stick? That's an example of how lunar or Martian rock can be fashioned into rebar.

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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.

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It's precisely in places like this simulated Mars habitat where groups can test the tools and structures made from rock. 

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There are two main types of lava rock to work with. This jagged form (which tears up shoes) is known as `A`a (pronounced "ah-ah").

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Smooth ripples of dried lava are called pahoehoe.

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The patterns, like brownie batter poured into a pan, are mesmerizing.

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This hole in the earth, formed by an eruption, is a one-way trip down. HI-SEAS participants must learn to navigate tricky terrain on Mauna Loa before they can apply best practices off-planet.

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Moon and Mars rock has another fascinating property: it contains hydrogen. Researchers have used robots to autonomously extract hydrogen from the dust and create water. 

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The process churns through a lot of energy, which may be tricky to produce in a lunar or Martian habitat. 

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Similar research takes place through universities and organizations throughout the world, like in Flagstaff, Arizona and at the Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho.

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When humans return to the moon or venture to Mars, scientists want to be ready.

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