Building on Mars: New method creates materials from available soils

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A new Texas A&M University-developed technique that allows for the creation of building materials using local soils could prove key not only to the success of future space missions to the Moon and Mars, but also to establishing a solid and safe foothold on both — a futuristic concept that came one step closer to reality with last week’s successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on the surface of the red planet.

Thanks to a 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program grant awarded to a team led by Texas A&M chemist and NASA NIAC Fellow Sarbajit Banerjee, innovation that began with boggy, water-logged soils from Canada to Texas may soon be applied to the rocky, razor-sharp regolith that dominates the lunar and Martian landscapes in order to help solve a three-part problem Banerjee says has plagued the space agency since the Apollo missions: excessive dust, unnecessary damage and untold danger.

“Five of the six Apollo landings had issues with dust blocking the astronauts’ view of the surface, forcing them to guess at the final landing location and sometimes landing on slopes dangerously close to the maximum tolerance — one time, precariously close to a major crater,” Banerjee said. “If NASA and its commercial partners are to mount a sustained presence on the Moon and Mars and land on outer solar system bodies, we need to find a way to tame surface materials for landing and mobility.”

Banerjee, in collaboration with colleagues in the College of Engineering and College of Architecture, proposes to do just that in his team’s NIAC effort, “Regolith Adaptive Modification System (RAMS) to Support Early Extraterrestrial Planetary Landings and Operations,” one of 16 selected by NASA for Phase I awards out of nearly 300 proposal submitted for consideration. Each award provides nine months of seed funding that allows researchers to further develop their ideas in order to compete for up to $500,000 more in Phase II funding that will help them further advance and refine their technology over the course of two additional years.

For more than two decades, the NIAC (which started out as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) has nurtured visionary ideas capable of transforming future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey. The program seeks innovations from diverse and non-traditional sources, selecting projects that study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day “change the possible” in aerospace.

“There is an overwhelming number of new participants in the program this year,” said NIAC Program Executive Jason Derleth. “All but two of the researchers selected for Phase I awards will be first-time NIAC grant recipients, showing NASA’s early-stage opportunities continue to engage new creative thinkers from all over the country.”

In much the same way they previously created an economical, environmentally friendly alternative to concrete using clay-based soil from a backyard in Texas or a geopolymerized wood fiber prototype suitable for all weather-roads using mucky Canadian muskeg soil, Banerjee and his Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station collaborator Bjorn Birgisson are confident their NIAC team can create landing pads and other prepared surfaces on Mars out of regolith to address what he sees as one of the most critical surface-related developments since the Apollo program.

“The big difference moving forward from the Apollo missions is that the proposed Artemis missions are targeting repeated landings in the same area,” said Birgisson, professor and J.L. “Corky” Frank/Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC Chair in the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “If not controlled, dust will compromise operations, sensors, solar panels and other sensitive equipment and will infiltrate interiors of the spacecraft and eventually into the Gateway.”

The Texas A&M team’s proposed RAMS approach relies on sequentially delivered microcapsules chemically tuned to react with the components of regolith through a series of exothermic reactions to create geopolymerized subsurface slabs. By employing a similar process that helped them perfect the development of sustainable building materials which quickly gain strength after being 3D printed, the team will use a sequence of chemical reactions to coat all surfaces and make high-strength vanadium steel skins and anchors using a de facto nano steel mill powered by locally harvested minerals and highly exothermic reactions. As an added bonus, Banerjee notes the nanothermite and encapsulating systems necessary to run it are both lightweight and safe to fly.

In addition to Banerjee and Birgisson, the NIAC research team features Nicole Shumaker, Research Specialist V in the Texas A&M Department of Construction Science, and Kevin Cannon, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering and a member of the Space Resources Program at the Colorado School of Mines.

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