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Astronauts make concrete in space for the first time



Astronauts at the station often share beautiful images and time lapse as they capture from their unique vantage point 220 miles above the earth. But they also work with hundreds of experiments in the floating laboratory every day.

A new experiment included mixing aqueous solution with tricalcium silicate for the first time – a scientific way of saying concrete. The basic ingredients for concrete include sand, gravel and stones mixed with a cement powder and water-based paste. It sounds as easy as whipping cake mix, but the process itself is much more difficult.

And the lack of gravity changes everything.

Astronauts participated in the Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification project to understand how concrete chemistry is changing with zero weight, down to the microscopic structures in it.

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"How will it cure? the microstructure? "said Aleksandra Radlinska, principal investigator for the experiment at Pennsylvania State University. "These are the questions we are trying to answer."

The paper was published this week in the journal Frontiers in Materials.

A variety of mixtures were made where cement powders, additives, water and time grants varied. The researchers studied how the cement powder dissolved in the water because it is when the molecular structures shift to form coherent crystals.

  These images compare cement pastes mixed in space (above) and on earth (below). The sample from space shows more open spaces in the material.

The space station mixtures were compared with samples mixed on earth. The cement paste on the earth ended up being more porous, which is exciting because more open spaces in the concrete would affect its strength.

"Increased porosity has a direct impact on the strength of the material, but we have not yet measured the strength of the space-shaped material," Radlinska said. "Although concrete has been used for so long on earth, we still do not necessarily understand all aspects of the hydration process. Now we know that there are some differences between terrestrial and space-based systems and we can investigate those differences to see which ones are beneficial and which ones are harmful to using this material in space. "

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There is currently an experiment on the space station looking at cement samples containing simulated lunar particles.

"On behalf of the moon and Mars, humans and equipment will need to be protected from extreme temperatures and radiation, and the only way to do that is to build infrastructure in these extraterrestrial environments," Radlinska said.

"An idea is to build with a concrete-like material in space. Concrete is very robust and provides better protection than many materials.

" We confirmed the hypothesis that this can be done. Now we can take the next step to find binders that are specific to space and for variable gravity levels, from (zero gravity to Mars gravity) and in between. "


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