Skip to main content

The key to building a habitat on Mars? Insect exoskeletons, apparently

What should we build our shelters from when we finally send a crewed mission to Mars? If researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design are to be believed, the answer is simple: A combination of Martian soil and chitin, a primary component in seashells, insect exoskeletons, and fungi walls. These basic building blocks could provide a replenishable material for making rigid shelters that can support humans on the Red Planet.

“[Sustainability is] a key factor of our research,” Javier Gomez Fernandez, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “Production scales with waste … Therefore the system scales with the population: The more [humans], the larger is the ecosystem, the larger the production of chitin from waste processing, the more material you can produce. This is the opposite to the current Earth paradigm, where the more you produce, the more resources you deplete, and the more waste you generate.”

Researchers have been working on similar bio-inspired manufacturing process for sustainability on Earth for a decade. However, in a new paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, Fernandez and colleagues describe how the material could be just perfect for life on Mars. The chitin they propose could come from insects, which may also double as a valuable source of protein for the long space journey. This chitin can then be combined with Martian soil to create the finished building material, without requiring much in the way of energy or specialist equipment.

Mars habitat
Javier Fernandez

Building on a dead rock in space

In an abstract describing their work, the researchers write that, “Given plans to revisit the lunar surface by the late 2020s and to take a crewed mission to Mars by the late 2030s, critical technologies must mature. In missions of extended duration, in situ resource utilization is necessary to both maximize scientific returns and minimize costs. While this [presents] a significantly more complex challenge in the resource-starved environment of Mars, it is similar to the increasing need to develop resource-efficient and zero-waste ecosystems on Earth.”

There are, of course, a few differences, which the researchers are now investigating. These include how the material will likely hold up when interacting with the radiation, low pressure, and low temperatures of Mars. Because nobody wants to spend a couple of years flying to Mars, eating bugs along the way, only to build a house made of recycled bugs that instantly falls apart.

Fernandez continued: “The material presented here is developed for a Martian ecosystem as a way to challenge our technology to its extreme, by applying it to develop circular sustainable manufacturing on the worst possible scenario: A dead rock in space.”

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
See a postcard from Mars taken by the Curiosity rover
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its black-and-white navigation cameras to capture panoramas of “Marker Band Valley” at two times of day on April 8. Color was added to a combination of both panoramas for an artistic interpretation of the scene.

Today, you can enjoy a stunning new view of Mars, thanks to a postcard from the Gale Crater taken by the Curiosity rover. The image combines two different views of the same area and is colorized to show off the undulating martian landscape in a region called the Marker Band Valley.

The image, shared by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), shows the back of the rover and views of the tire tracks it has left across the martian surface as it has driven. The view on the left side of the image was taken in the morning of April 8, at 9:20 a.m. local Mars time, while the image on the right side was taken on the same day but in the evening, at 3:40 p.m. local Mars time. The two images have been blended together to show how the landscape looks different throughout the day.

Read more
NASA lost contact with Mars Ingenuity helicopter for a week — but it’s OK now
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA has announced that it recently lost contact with the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars for a week. Communications with the helicopter have now been restored, and it will continue exploring Mars's Jezero crater along with the Perseverance rover.

The Ingenuity helicopter has outlasted all expectations, originally designed to make just five flights but completing an incredible 51st flight in April. However, this extended lifespan means that the helicopter has run into problems, particularly when the Martian winter set in and it was difficult for its solar panels to generate enough heat to keep its electronics warm. This means that the helicopter must deal with occasional brownouts of power during the nighttime, which can affect the time at which the helicopter wakes up each morning.

Read more
NASA’s June skywatching tips include Mars in the Beehive
how to photograph perseid meteor shower night sky with

What's Up: June 2023 Skywatching Tips from NASA

NASA is back again with its monthly roundup of what to look out for in the sky over the coming weeks.

Read more