The key to living and building on Mars may be found in the soil of the Red Planet, meaning the creation of habitats could be easier than thought.

A research group may have just discovered the answer to a problem scientists have been wondering about for years: how to build habitats on Mars. The answer, it appears, may be easier than we thought and could be as simple as using high-pressure tools to create bricks out of Martian soil.

Humanity is going to Mars… sooner or later. The current goal is to have Earthlings leaving footprints on the Red Planet in the 2030s. An exact date hasn’t been set (it will be after 2033 at the earliest), and part of it will depend on our ability to reach certain goals, including creating technology that hasn’t been invented yet, and solving problems that as of yet have no solution.

One of the bigger problems is how people can remain on Mars for any length of time. Even the most optimistic projections suggest that the trip our neighboring planet will take months, and given that weight in space travel is one of the most important factors when it comes to propulsion, it would be difficult to take a habitat of any real size or durability while also loading up the ship with enough provisions for the trip there and back. We could send something to Mars ahead of time, but that too would meet with weight limitations, and if anything went wrong – like a rough landing – the astronauts could find their only living structure uninhabitable.

Another option would be to bring a small habitat with us as a separate craft, one capable of landing on Mars and offering immediate shelter, similar to how the Apollo missions sent humans to the moon in a separate lunar spacecraft from the command module. That would work for a short stay on Mars, but eventually, we will want to stay for longer periods of time. The solution to that may be to build structures using bricks composed of materials found on Mars.

While working with simulated Martian soil created and provided by NASA, researchers at the University California, San Diego discovered that by applying enough pressure, the soil becomes as tough as a brick. Simply hitting the soil with a 10-pound hammer, or the equivalent amount of pressure, the soil became stronger than steel-reinforced concrete.

A future Mars mission could send a robot capable of automating the process. Once on Mars, it could begin digging and assembling bricks long before the astronauts arrived. With luck, it could even begin to build structures that would be waiting for the astronauts. A similar plan for colonization of the moon has been discussed, which would also use the native soil to construct shelters. The Martian project is still in the early stages of planning, however, and several questions remain.

“We still don’t [know] what the final system would look like. One possibility is we need a piling system,” said lead researcher Yu Qiao. “We need something to lift the hammer and then release the hammer to hit the soil. That would create sufficient pressure to turn it into a brick.”

Although still in the testing stage, the results so far have been encouraging on every level. The materials would be strong enough for the needs of the fledgling Martians, as the soil contains iron oxide compounds, similar to the compounds that make up rust. It would also make moot the question of how to prepare materials for transit, freeing up the weight another form of habitat might require. Questions remain, but with at least 15 years to plan, the research team at UC San Diego is optimistic that this method will be a viable option.

It’s a win on all fronts, and it might solve the question of how we may one day colonize Mars.