Astronauts Make Cement in Space for the First Time

Recently, in September 2019, astronauts aboard the International Space Station accomplished an astonishing engineering feat that will revolutionize exploration and eventual space habitation: creating sturdy cement in a microgravity environment. Microgravity is simply a term, referring to a value of gravity that is VERY close to zero. Many times, microgravity is associated with “zero gravity” however, this can be misleading. No, astronauts do not float in space due to microgravity; they “float” because they are in constant free fall. Gravity can be found in every part of space, but its magnitude fluctuates. By experimenting with microgravity through experiments in space, scientists are obtaining new information daily about how processes work differently in space such as crystal formation, flames, and cement.

As an essential part of the “Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification,” astronauts combined the common ingredients associated with cement – rocks, sand, water, and powders – in small pouches in order to investigate theories regarding hardening and its microscopic structure. After 42 days of hardening, through a process referred to as hydration, the samples proved that cement is capable of solidifying in space with very little gravity. This groundbreaking discovery enables ambitious scientists to theorize its vitality in future space exploration – especially for the development of structures on planets such as the Moon or Mars.

Considering its widespread use on Earth, cement’s application and usage in space may make space “human habitats” more realistic if a method of mass production is developed. Cement is very sturdy and would provide adequate cover from the elements thus allowing buildings and bases to be encompass greater protection from the rife, harmful radiation in space. Furthermore, structural scientists are researching the possibilities for the substitution of certain materials in cement to be replaced by natural resources plentiful on distant lands – one of these is Moon dust. This would take extensive research and testing; however, in the end, it would save millions of dollars (if not billions) that would be spent sending supplies for cement into orbit. According to Aleksandra Radlinksa, an engineering professor at Penn State University, “We have several ideas and a working hypothesis of what the next ‘best’ material would be. We can’t disclose these just yet” (quoted from Astronomy.com).

Continually, as discovered by the successful cement tests from the ISS, cement created in space has very unique microstructures when compared to the cement we see on Earth. Space-made cement is much more porous that Earth-made cement due to the microgravity environment of the space station which would intimate a weaker substance; however, the cement also developed a uniform density across the entire piece (instead of gravity induced layers of sedimentation). Uniform density may, in fact, make cement stronger. Ultimately, the space-cement’s porous quality makes it weaker while its uniform density most likely makes it stronger. Do these advantages and disadvantages cancel out? Scientists are continuing to perform tests and study this important material 250 miles above us at this very moment.

Sources:

Dunbar, Brian. “What Is Microgravity?” NASA, NASA, 16 June 2015, www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/nasa-knows/what-is-microgravity-58.html.

Gohd, Chelsea. “Astronauts Make First Cement in Space to Support Future Martian Habitats.” Space.com, Space, 9 Sept. 2019, www.space.com/astronauts-first-cement-space-mars-habitat.html.

Parks, Jake. “Astronauts Mix Cement on ISS, Pave Way for Future Space Colonies.” Astronomy.com, 9 Sept. 2019, www.astronomy.com/news/2019/09/first-cement-mixed-in-space-paves-the-way-for-otherworldly-buildings.

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