One day, concrete created in space could help humans build habitats on the Moon and Mars, according to a new study.
During a recent investigation aboard the International Space Station, astronauts made cement in microgravity for the first time, demonstrating that it can solidify and grow in space.
Concrete—a mixture of sand, rock, gravel, and a mixture of water and cement powder that holds it together—is a strong, reliable building material right here on Earth. It may also be durable enough to protect future astronauts from cosmic radiation and some of the dangers to extraterrestrial life, researchers say in a new study. “One idea is to build with materials like concrete in space. Concrete is very durable and protects better than many materials,” Alexandra Radlinska, assistant professor of civil engineering at Penn State, said in a NASA statement.
Alternatively, concrete (or concrete-like mixtures) can be made with local materials, such as moon dust. Therefore, if humans establish colonies on the Moon and Mars, these colonists can use local materials instead of sending them from Earth, this will be a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process.
For the study, called the Cement Microgravity Investigation Project, astronauts on the space station mixed water with calcium silicate, the main mineral ingredient in some commercial cements. The most used commercial. This mixture is not created in zero gravity.
When researchers on Earth compared cement samples made on Earth with cement samples made in space, they discovered that cement made on the space station has a microscopic structure. The textures are very different from cement made on Earth, according to the press release. One of the main differences is that cement produced in space is more porous than cement produced on Earth. “The increased porosity directly affects the strength of the material, but we have not yet measured the strength of materials that form in space,” Radlinska says. “Although concrete has been used for a very long time on Earth, we still don’t necessarily understand all aspects of hydration. We now know that there are some differences between Earth and space systems, and we can test those differences. To see which is beneficial and harmful to using this material in space” .
It may seem like a simple building material, but cement actually has a rather complex structure. When cement powder dissolves in water, crystals begin to form and stick together, which changes the molecular structure of the material. This investigation aims to clarify and explore how cements are formed in microgravity and whether unique microstructures can form. The project also allows for the first time a comparison of cement samples generated on Earth with cement samples generated in space.
However, the team believes that the way the experiments were conducted may have affected the study’s results. For example, cement on the ground is not usually handled in airtight plastic bags because it is installed on board the aircraft in a controlled environment of the space station.
“The samples were in sealed bags, so another question is whether they are more complex in an open space environment,” Radlinska says.
Although the cement produced in space is slightly different from the cement produced on Earth, it still grows and hardens.
“We confirmed the hypothesis that it could be done,” Radlinska said. “We can now take the next steps to find the connections to space and different levels of gravity, from 0 g to Mars g and in between.”
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