The Advanced Materials That Can Help Take Us to Mars

Scientists, designers and engineers across the space industry are working tirelessly to form innovative solutions for traveling to, living on and further understanding Mars. 

planet mars
alonesdj/stock.adobe.com

Mars has long occupied our imagination as a site of wonder and possibility in film — from the high-tech invasion portrayed in The War of the Worlds to Andy Weir's perhaps more accurate depiction The Martian.

Today, reality is closer than ever to the dreams of science fiction. As early as the 2030s, humans will be able to visit Earth's planetary neighbor in the most ambitious aerospace mission yet.

The key to becoming an interplanetary species? Cutting-edge materials. Thankfully, scientists, designers, and engineers across the space industry are working tirelessly to form innovative solutions for traveling to, living on, and further understanding Mars.

Making the Trip

While Mars itself is situated in a "Goldilocks zone" where life is possible, space itself is desolate. Travelers are susceptible to extreme temperature cycles, a lack of breathable air, and high radiation levels. Sending people to Mars requires an incredibly secure spacecraft capable of lasting 38 million miles — the minimum distance between Earth and Mars.

Arguably the most critical layer of a spacecraft is its outermost material — the heat shield. Current heat shields consist of permanently set fiberglass and polymer resin; any small crack results in the replacement of the entire structure. Nisa Salim of Swinburne University of Technology is developing self-healing components that reinforce shields against space debris and micrometeorites. Dr. Salim's research incorporates nature-inspired design, drawing on the human body to build synthetic materials that rapidly respond to damage. Salim hopes microcapsules containing self-healing components can "bleed" into cracks in the way human platelets rush to plug wounds.

The trip also requires much fuel. NASA has a history of slimming down propellant tanks without sacrificing storage. However, there's room for improvement. In the past decade, materials created from carbon fiber have significantly reduced spacecraft weight for such spacecrafts as the Ingenuity helicopter and the Perseverance rover. Creating durable, lightweight objects from the construction of the craft itself to the tools used in space exploration can translate into greater fuel efficiency and fewer expenses.

It's imperative to stick the landing when reaching Mars, as a spacecraft carrying humans is incredibly heavy. For a safe touchdown, scientists are testing inflatable landing decelerators. An inflatable composed of braided synthetic fibers 15 times stronger than steel should protect astronauts during the "seven minutes of terror" required to descend through Mars' atmosphere to its surface. NASA plans to launch an inflatable on an Atlas V rocket mission in late 2022.

Life on Mars

Once humans arrive, whether for an exploratory visit or long-term settlement, life on Mars will require specific suits, habitats, and food systems.

New modern spacesuits tested in 2021 have greater mobility, allow remote control of robotic assets and include display systems in the helmets, replacing the rudimentary notebooks once attached to astronauts' elbows. Greg Quinn, Collins Aerospace advanced spacesuit development lead, calls the new displays a "game-changer" that can "enhance the autonomy, productivity, and safety of future explorers."

If astronauts stay on Mars for long periods, the next concern will be building adequate low-cost habitats while maintaining low weight onboard shuttles. Scientists think a solution may lie in the planet's natural resources — specifically regolith, a sandy rock layer of Martian soil. Various teams have demonstrated building techniques with a regolith simulant (JSC Mars-1a was composed of Hawaiian basalt), including 3D printing and rapid compression. Early tests show the material is weaker than concrete, but one team mixed a simulant with chitin, producing makeshift mortar, a functional wrench and a model habitat.

Focus should then turn to establishing a sustainable food supply. Previously, that could mean a combination of imports, insect farms, and synthetic meat. While dining on bugs might seem unsavory to some, the cellular agriculture used to make lab-grown foods is likely to satisfy anyone nostalgic for milk, eggs, or hamburgers. As for growing food in Martian soil, they'll have to accept the basics of potatoes, wheat, soy, and corn grown with LED lights and/or Martian sunlight, as water-intensive fruits, nuts and vegetables demand too many resources.

Communication and Energy Sources

Constant conversation between Earth and Mars will be almost as important as feeding and sheltering the astronauts living there. Technological breakthroughs are paving the way for easier and faster communications across space.

A laser communication system, for instance, can allow the sending of real-time data from Mars to mission control, including high-definition images and videos. Since 1958, space agencies have relied on radio waves, which emit weak signals that struggle over long distances. But NASA's latest addition to its Deep Space Network (DSN), Deep Space Station-23, is able to receive much stronger signals from deep space.

Suzanne Dodd, director of the Interplanetary Network, said the data rate from lasers surpasses that of radio ten times over. "Our hope is that providing a platform for optical communications will encourage others to experiment with lasers on future missions," she explained.

Beyond lasers, space organizations are refining energy sources to use on Mars. The top contenders are nuclear fission and solar power. The former could run for a decade, while the latter is fully renewable. As a lower-cost alternative, the European Space Agency is considering orbiting solar power plants that collect energy from the sun and transmit it to the surface.

In 2017, California researchers proposed a modular power station consisting of thousands of Ultralite solar cells. Other innovations include the use of 3D printing to limit reliance on pre-built materials for satellites and other energy storage systems. When humans reach Mars, these devices could enable unprecedented productivity and information-sharing.

Our Future on Mars

While some of these materials are still in developmental stages, we are only years away from the Artemis missions to the moon and Mars. If renewed interest in commercial space flight is any indication, humanity is ready for further space exploration.

Even a single trip to Mars will generate economic and social developments. As before, the innovative technologies created for life off-planet in the coming decades can translate to improvements in healthcare, transportation, environmental preservation, and other sectors.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
What's this?
Content labeled as the Expert Forum is produced and managed by Newsweek Expert Forum, a fee based, invitation only membership community. The opinions expressed in this content do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Newsweek or the Newsweek Expert Forum.