In April this year, NASA marked a significant milestone in our efforts to leave Earth behind, creating oxygen on the surface of Mars for the first time. Now, scientists have proposed another step toward life on the Red Planet, and (spoiler alert) it’s not particularly glamorous.
According to a study published in the scientific journal Materials Today Bio, future Martian bases could be crafted out of astronauts’ literal blood, sweat, and tears (as well as urine, and potentially more).
Led by Aled D. Roberts, a research scientist at the University of Manchester, the research proposes that these materials produced by the human body could be used to complement the raw materials that exist on Mars, cutting the cost of interplanetary trips.
“The high cost and significant time delay associated with delivering payloads to the Martian surface means that exploitation of resources in situ – including inorganic rock and dust, water deposits, and atmospheric gases – will be an important part of any crewed mission to the Red Planet,” Roberts and his team of researchers explain. “Yet there is one significant, but chronically overlooked, source of natural resources that will – by definition – also be available on any crewed mission to Mars: the crew themselves.”
Flipping the proverbial phrase “you can’t get blood from a stone” on its head, the study suggests that stone could be made out of blood, at least partly. Reportedly, a protein from human blood can form a material, when combined with Mars of Moon dust, that has a similar compressive strength to concrete. Adding urea (a substance found in urine, sweat, and tears) can increase that strength by over 300 per cent.
As part of the new research, a test version of this material has been fabricated, named “AstroCrete”. Besides the increased strength, researchers say that it could potentially be 3D printed into bricks on Mars. The scientists estimate that the material for about 500 kilograms of bricks could be produced by (and harvested from) a crew of Martian astronauts within a two year period. Though there are some concerns — for example, the risks of donating so much plasma in low-gravity, over a long period of time — this could provide crucial building materials for future Mars missions.
Other human resources, such as dead skin, hair and nails, mucus, and faeces “could also be exploited for their material properties on early extraterrestrial colonies”, Roberts’ team says (we don’t envy the scientist that has to make that discovery). “Unfortunately,” they add, “due to health and safety concerns, we were unable to explore human faeces-based ERBs (Extraterrestrial Regolith Biocomposites) in this study.”
Earlier this week, NASA speculated that rock samples taken from an ancient river delta on Mars, extracted by the Perseverance rover, may contain signs of now-extinct life on the planet. So, even if we do manage to successfully colonise Mars, we might not be the first to do it.
Get an idea of what early human life on Mars might look like here, and take a look at a graphical representation of the abstract for the blood, sweat, and tears study below.