Wet regolith bricks cropped
Areas of Science Space Exploration
Civil Engineering
Difficulty
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This project requires special materials. See the Materials list for details.
Cost Average ($40 - $80)
Safety No issues

Abstract

The idea of a colony on Mars is exciting! In this science project, you will tackle one of the challenges a Martian colony will face: what will buildings on Mars be made of? In this project, you will make bricks from Martian-like ground cover and measure how strong these bricks are.

Objective

Create bricks from a Martian-like ground cover, and measure how strong these bricks are.

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Credits

Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies

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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

De Brabandere, Sabine. "Build for Martian Colonies!" Science Buddies, 6 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/SpaceEx_p033/space-exploration/building-with-mars-regolith. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

APA Style

De Brabandere, S. (2020, November 6). Build for Martian Colonies! Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/SpaceEx_p033/space-exploration/building-with-mars-regolith


Last edit date: 2020-11-06

Introduction

To live on Mars, you need food, shelter, and breathable air. In this project, you will focus on exploring shelter; specifically, if the ground cover of Mars can be used to construct places to shelter on Mars.

Transporting all building materials from Earth to Mars is expensive. For that reason, scientists try to turn materials that are available on Mars into construction materials. One of these materials is Martian regolith, the loose rocky material that covers Mars' surface. The first requirement for construction material is that it is strong so it holds the weight of the building. But what else might be important?

Earth is protected by a thick atmosphere and a magnetic field. Mars does not have the same level of protection. In addition, because Mars orbits farther from the Sun than Earth, it is a colder planet. The average temperature on Mars is -81°F. Construction material will need to be able to withstand these frigid Martian temperatures. Mars also gets bombarded by cosmic radiation. A large part of this radiation gets absorbed by Earth's atmosphere or deflected by Earth's magnetic field—protections that do not exist on Mars. Construction materials on Mars will need to withstand these radiation levels, and if possible, act as a shield for people and material within the buildings. Can construction material made from regolith form a shield for cosmic radiation?

How can regolith, a powdery substance, be used to form construction material? Scientists think that specific polymers can be used as glue to hold regolith together. Polymers are very long molecules that consist of repetitive units. Plastic and school glue are both polymers. Scientists have had promising results; with the right type of polymer, they have been able to make strong, weather-resistant construction materials that are an effective shield against cosmic radiation.

Martian regolith is not available on Earth, but a similar type of regolith can be found on Earth. Scientists use this Mars regolith simulant in their studies, and you can, too. It is sold online as "Mars Simulant." This regolith has a similar chemical composition as Martian ground cover and has a similar grain size, too. Though you do not have access to the polymers that scientists use to test regolith bricks, you can use school glue to hold the regolith together and form bricks. Additionally, because you probably do not have access to equipment to perform strength tests commonly used in the construction industry, you will use a crash test to test the strength of the material you make. You will drop bricks from a fixed height and see how well the bricks withstand the drop. More-advanced tests are listed in the Make It Your Own section.

In this project, you will compare the strength of bricks made from coarse regolith to those made from fine regolith. Which type do you expect to be the strongest? On Earth, concrete is often used as construction material. Concrete is made from a mixture of sand and gravel; cement is used as a binding material. Concrete made with coarse gravel is stronger than concrete made with finer gravel. Will the same be true for bricks made from coarse and fine regolith? Try it out!

Terms and Concepts

  • Martian regolith
  • Atmosphere
  • Magnetic field
  • Polymer
  • Simulant

Questions

  • Why is it important to incorporate material that is already on Mars when developing construction material for Martian colonies?
  • Why do scientists find bricks that are made from regolith and polymers to be a promising candidate as building material for a Martian colony?
  • What requirements would you decide on for bricks that will be used to build shelter on Mars?
  • Can you think of some ways to make bricks from regolith? Could these methods be used to make bricks to build colonies on Mars?

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

  • National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.

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Materials and Equipment

  • Mojave Mars Simulant, 1/2 kg coarse and 1/2 kg fine, available from The Martian Garden
  • School glue like Elmer's® school glue, 20-oz
  • Tablespoon
  • Plastic spoon or spoon that can get scratched (2)
  • Disposable cups, or cups that can get scratched (2)
  • Mini loaf pan (3.28 x 2.5") or muffin pan
  • Paper liners for the pan (8)
  • Hard surface on which to drop the bricks
  • Butcher paper, newspaper, or other paper to protect the hard surface
  • Kitchen scale, preferably a digital scale that can measure in grams
  • Lab notebook
 Materials needed to explore how to make construction material from Mars regolith simulant.

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Experimental Procedure

Making a Hypothesis

You will make bricks from a mixture of regolith and glue. You will use coarse regolith for four bricks and fine regolith for four bricks. Before you start, look at the two types of regolith and make a hypothesis (or educated guess). Which type of regolith will make the strongest bricks, and why?

 A pile of coarse red gravel next to a pile of very fine red gravel.
Figure 1. Coarse and fine Mars simulation regolith.

Making Regolith Bricks

  1. Place the liners in your baking pan.
     Pan that can hold eight mini loaves is filled with liners.
    Figure 2. Mini-loaf baking pan filled with liners.

  2. Pour the following ingredients in a cup, in the order listed:
    • 3 tablespoons (tbsp.) of coarse regolith
    • 2 tbsp. of glue
  3. Mix with a disposable spoon until all the regolith is wet and well-mixed, as shown in Figure 3.

     Cup with red-brown, wet, somewhat liquid, mud-like content
    Figure 3. Three tbsp. of regolith simulant mixed with 2 tbsp. of glue.

  4. Mix in another 2 tbsp. of coarse regolith. Figure 4 shows what the result should look like.

     Cup with red-brown, wet, sturdy, mud-like content
    Figure 4. A total of 5 tbsp. of simulation regolith mixed with 2 tbsp. of glue.

  5. If your mixture does not hold its form, add more regolith until it holds its shape and does not spread.
  6. Divide the contents between 2 mini-loaves or 2 muffin cups, spooning the content in the liners.
  7. Use your spoon to press the contents in the pan, flattening the top surface. An example is shown in Figure 5.

     A wet, red-brown mixture filling paper muffin liners in a pan one-third full.
    Figure 5. Wet regolith bricks made from coarse regolith and glue.

  8. Repeat steps 2–7, using a new cup and fine regolith instead of the coarser type.
  9. If you need the pan to make more bricks, carefully take the liners with the coarse bricks out and place them on a flat surface to dry.
  10. Repeat the whole process one more time so you have four bricks made from coarse regolith, and four bricks made from fine regolith. Reuse the first cup to make coarser regolith bricks and the second cup for finer regolith bricks.
  11. Make notes in your lab notebook about the process. Was it easier to make one type of brick compared to the other? Do the bricks look different when wet?
  12. Let the bricks dry in a warm or sunny, dry spot. If they are still in the pan, take them out after a few hours, or up to a full day, so they can dry on all sides. You might want to rotate them part-way through so the bottom dries.
  13. Once dry, carefully peel off the paper liners from the bricks.
  14. Make notes in your lab notebook about the appearance and feel of the two types of bricks. Did you notice if one type dried faster than the other?
  15. The bricks should be totally dry before continuing. If they feel soft, wet, or sticky, let them dry longer. You can put them in the oven on the lowest setting to speed up the drying.
    Two flat, red-brown bricks; one brick has a finer surface compared to the other brick
    Figure 6. Fine (left) and coarse (right) regolith bricks ready to be tested.

Testing Regolith Bricks for Strength

  1. Find a place where you can drop the bricks from a set height on a hard surface, like a driveway, tiled floor, etc. A window or balcony on the second floor is ideal. Standing on a chair or table works, too. Important: Before you try this out, explain your test idea to an adult and ask permission to drop the bricks from that location and height onto the hard surface. Explain that you will cover the floor with paper to protect it.
  2. Once you have permission, cover the area where the bricks will touch the hard surface with scrap paper, butcher paper, newspaper, etc. The paper is there to protect the floor. Avoid using cardboard or carpet, as that will cushion the fall. A large, thin sheet of paper or cloth is fine.
  3. Make a data table in your lab notebook, similar to Table 1. It will help you to neatly record the data.
 Mass of Largest Solid Remaining Piece [grams]Notes
Initial MassMass after
1 Drop
Mass after
2 Drops
Mass after
3 Drops
 
Coarse Regolith Bricks
Brick 1      
Brick 2      
Brick 3      
Brick 4      
Average     
Fine Regolith Bricks
Brick 1      
Brick 2      
Brick 3      
Brick 4      
Average     
Table 1. Data table in which to record the mass of the bricks and the mass of the largest surviving brick pieces after up to three drops.
  1. Bring your bricks to your test location and choose one to test first. Identify if it was made from coarse or fine regolith.
  2. Measure its mass on the digital scale, preferably in grams. Write down the mass for Brick 1 in the column labeled "Initial Mass." It is fine to round all measurements to the nearest gram; that will make the calculations easier, too.
  3. Hold the brick horizontally, make sure no person or animal is below the brick, and release.
     Set of two pictures showing a side view and a top-down view of a brick ready to be dropped for the crash test.
    Figure 7. Side (left) and top-down (right) view of the test setup.

  4. Look at the dropped brick. Did it break? Select the largest (heaviest) piece of brick and sweep all the other pieces to the side. If the brick did not break, the whole brick counts as the heaviest piece.

     A brick and a corner that has broken off on brown paper.
    Figure 8. Regolith brick after a drop.

  5. Measure the mass of the heaviest piece. Write your measurement down as the mass of Brick 1 after 1 drop.

     A large piece of regolith brick being weighed.
    Figure 9. Measure the mass of the largest remaining piece of regolith brick.

  6. Repeat steps 6–8 two more times each time using the largest remaining piece to obtain the mass of Brick 1 after 2 drops and after 3 drops. Add any observations you made in the "Notes" column.
  7. Keep the largest piece remaining after 3 drops. Group the largest remaining pieces according to the brick type (for instance, "Coarse"). You might want to take a picture of all the largest pieces remaining for your display board.
  8. Choose a brick from the other type (coarse or fine regolith) to test next. Repeat steps 5–10 for this brick.
  9. If your remaining pieces are almost identical to the initial bricks, you might have very strong bricks. In this case, we advise you to extend the test and drop the bricks several more times. You can record the mass after each drop or choose to record the mass after 2, 4, and 6 drops, or 3, 6, and 9  drops. Never skip measuring the initial mass!
  10. Continue by testing a second brick from the first type, etc., alternating between types after each test until you have tested all the bricks.

Analyzing the Data

You gathered a lot of data! In this section, you will try to make sense of your observations.

  1. Calculate the averages. The average is obtained by adding up the measurements (in this case, measurements for Bricks 1—4) and dividing the result by the number of measurements (in this case, 4). An example of the average of the initial mass of coarse regolith bricks together with indications of how to calculate the averages is provided in Table 2.
 Mass of Largest Solid Remaining Piece [grams]Notes
Initial MassMass after
1 Drop
Mass after
2 Drops
Mass after
3 Drops
 
Coarse Regolith Bricks
Brick 1 53    
Brick 2 51    
Brick 3 50    
Brick 4 52    
Average 206/4 = 51.5     
Fine Regolith Bricks
Brick 1      
Brick 2      
Brick 3      
Brick 4      
Average       
Table 2. Example data table illustrating how to calculate the average. The colored boxes show which data to use for the average.
  1. Make a graph of the data. You can make your graph on paper or use a graphing tool. The Bibliography includes a webpage that can help you create graphs. Plot the number of drops on the horizontal axis (or x-axis), and the average mass on the vertical axis (y-axis). Make two graphs, one for the Coarse Regolith Bricks and one for the Fine Regolith Bricks. Make the range of mass (the smallest and largest value displayed on the y-axis) the same on both graphs, as this will allow you to more easily compare. If you can, also plot both measurements on the same graph, as shown in Figure 10. Do not forget to give your graph a title, and to label the axes!
     Graph showing the mass on vertical axis and the number of drops on the horizontal axis. A green line represents the measurements for coarse regolith bricks, a purple line represents measurements for fine regolith bricks. The title of the graph reads 'Mass of Largest Piece Remaining'
    Figure 10. Example graph using fictitious data. Note that your data will look different!

  2. Looking at your data and the graph(s), what can you conclude? Does your data confirm or reject your hypothesis, or is it inconclusive?
  3. What could you conclude from the qualitative observations you made? Would one type of regolith be better-suited for some applications compared to the other?
  4. What would your conclusion mean for colonies on Mars?
  5. If you had more time and resources, would you add anything to your research? If so, what would you add and why?
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Variations

  • This project compares bricks made from coarse regolith to bricks made from fine regolith. You can add a third type that uses a mixture of coarse and fine regolith.
  • Mars is a cold planet. You can test how well these bricks can withstand cold spells by repeatedly cooling half of the bricks. The freezer is a good place to start. Dry ice can cool your bricks even further, but you will need to do some research on how to use dry ice safely before using it. Then, compare the strength of the bricks that were not cooled with those that have been repeatedly cooled.
  • This project uses a crash test to test the strength of the bricks. The industry uses other tests to measure the strength of building materials. Check out the Pull-out Strength Test on Martian Regolith Bricks project for ideas on how you can do the pull-out test on your bricks.
  • Mars receives a lot of cosmic radiation. Check out the Space Radiation Protection project description for ways to test how well these bricks stop cosmic radiation.

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