Mars, forged in blood and steel

Shards of solid iron litter the Martian surface. This much was realized back in 2005, when NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity photographed an iron meteorite sitting right there on the Martian surface. But a new study by Geoffrey A. Landis at the NASA John Glenn Research Center suggests that meteoric steel might be abundant enough to act as a ready supply of construction materials for colonists.

The photograph shows an iron meteorite nicknamed “Heat Shield Rock” (I love these pet names for individual rocks), which is about 35 cm long and masses about 100 kg. Finding one iron meteorite is a lucky break, but it happened twice more. The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit found two more of these things, two years later. As Landis explains in his paper:

With the discovery of three examples in only a few tens of kilometers of roving, it is clear that nickel–iron meteorites must be a common rock type found on the Martian surface.

Unless we’ve been unbelievably lucky, fragments of meteoric steel should be fairly commonplace on Mars. If so, they’d be relatively easy to collect. Just trawl the surface with a magnetic rake. Not only could we build girders and I-beams out of this stuff, we could get substantial amounts of rare heavy elements – such as nickel, cobalt, vanadium, copper, silver, gold, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, mercury, and several others – that are useful for specialty alloys, electronics, catalysts and composite materials.

Colonists – or von Newmann robots – would need only to melt the steel and separate the elements by fractional crystallization (slow cooling, basically)… they wouldn’t have to expend the enormous amounts of energy necessary on Earth to reduce the metal from oxide ore. Mars has no atmospheric oxygen and effectively no surface water, so jagged lumps of steel can sit around in the weather there for a billion years and never rust.

All that steel lying around, and the ancient Martians used rocks to build their giant face monuments? Stupid Martians.

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~ by Planetologist on October 7, 2008.

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