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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Building for a future on Mars
Kiefer AP
Richard Kiefer has high hopes for the bricks
Scientists are developing bricks designed to withstand cosmic radiation in the event that people are able to colonise Mars.

The research could also have applications on Earth, such as use in shields around nuclear reactors.

The bricks would be made by mixing the chemical polyethylene, which would be transported from Earth, with the reddish topsoil of Mars.

The first missions to land astronauts on the Red Planet are expected to take place between 2020 and 2025.

Health concerns

Because of the different orbits of Earth and Mars, it is only really possible to travel between the two planets once every two years. So any astronauts visiting Mars might have to stay for a long time.

But living on Mars for an extended period of time raises a number of health concerns.

Unlike the Earth, Mars does not have a magnetic field to deflect cosmic radiation.

Therefore, anyone living on Mars would have to take measures to shield themselves from potentially damaging rays.

Cosmic shield

One solution, being developed by scientists at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, US, is to make radiation-proof bricks. The research is part of a student project.

Liquid hydrogen would be the best shield against radiation. "But that's a little impractical to take to Mars," said Richard Kiefer from the college's chemistry department.

So the researchers are using polyethylene - a light polymer containing a high percentage of hydrogen that is used to make plastic bags.

The polyethylene is mixed with topsoil, in this case from a local quarry. They have already created small bricks, containing 10%, 15% and 20% polyethylene.

The mixture is baked in an oven to remove moisture, then poured into stainless steel moulds and heated for half an hour at 118C.

The researchers are now testing the prototype bricks to see if they can withstand extreme temperatures and pressures.

Mars colonies

But according to one Mars expert, Colin Pillinger, Professor of Astronomy at the Open University, UK, the bricks are unlikely to be used for many decades, if at all.

"When we go to Mars, everything will be sent up from Earth to establish the first colonies," he told BBC News Online.

"They will take their entire living quarters with them and these will be landed on the surface of Mars.

"Astronauts won't be going out there with a couple of trowels and some polyethylene to stick some bricks together."

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See also:

17 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa pulls back from Mars
22 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa 'knew Mars mission would fail'
28 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Where now for Nasa?
29 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Mars failures 'down to cash'
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