Chitin, an organic polymer found in the cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects, and the scales of fish, could potentially be used as a building material by human settlers on Mars, researchers say.

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With plans to revisit the lunar surface and eventually send a crewed mission to the Red Planet, future space exploration missions are likely to involve an extended stay. Any brave souls wishing to take on such an endeavour are going to need a reliable building material to construct tools and shelters.

A team led by Javier Fernandez at Singapore University of Technology and Design have created a simple manufacturing technology based on chitin which uses basic chemistry suitable for early Martian settlement to extract and manufacture a new material with minimal energy requirements and without specialised equipment.

"Against the general perception, bioinspired manufacturing and sustainable materials are not a substituting technology for synthetic polymers, but an enabling technology defining a new paradigm in manufacturing, and allowing to do things that are unachievable by the synthetic counterparts. Here we have demonstrated that they are key not only for our sustainability on Earth but also for one of the next biggest achievements of humanity: our transformation into an interplanetary species,” said Dr Fernandez.

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They made the material by combining chitosan with a mineral designed to mimic the properties of Martian soil and used it in a proof-of-concept experiment to construct a wrench and a model of a Martian habitat. The technology may be the key to our development as an interplanetary species, they say.

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“The technology was originally developed to create circular ecosystems in urban environments, but due to its efficiency, it is also the most efficient and scalable method to produce materials in a closed artificial ecosystem in the extremely scarce environment of a lifeless planet or satellite," said Dr Fernandez.

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Reader Q&A: Could you throw a frisbee on Mars?

Asked by: Jonathan Hinchliffe, Birmingham

Since the Martian atmosphere is about 100 times less dense than Earth’s, the ‘lift’ a frisbee experiences would also be about 100 times less. But the gravitational force on Mars is about a third of that on Earth, so a frisbee on Mars would act as if it is about 33 times heavier (100/3). Since the lift depends on the size of the frisbee, the angle of attack and the velocity it is thrown (as well as the air density), it would still be possible to make a frisbee glide, but it would require much more effort on the part of the thrower!

 

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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