Scientists Unveil House Designs For Living On Mars

As the global science community takes giant leaps towards reaching the Red Planet, it faces another vital question -- how will we survive when we get there?

The astronauts who first set foot on Mars, and other planets, will need somewhere to stay -- or live.

It's a challenge that is pooling space engineers, research institutions, designers and architects -- and NASA is steering the ship.

For the last few  years, the agency has sponsored a US$3 million competition calling on design teams to "create housing solutions for our explorers on the moon, Mars or beyond".

The '3D-Habitat Challenge' has seen 11 teams compete in a series of rounds to manufacture sustainable shelters for "deep-space" habitation -- with the two final teams going head-to-head on Sunday (local time) for a U.S$800,000 prize purse.

The virtual design from team Mars Incubator won third place in Phase 3: Level 4 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. The team is a collection of engineers and artists.
Image: Mars Incubator

Dr. Rebecca Allen, from Swinburne University's Space Office, sees the competition as a "big opportunity".

"I love the idea of turning this challenge around and saying, 'we don't know exactly how to do this, you guys give it a go,'" she told 10 daily.

"When you open the floor and take in concepts from top research institutions from across the world, you are going to come up with something greater than what you would have been able to do on your own."

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NASA asked the teams to use some form of 3D printing to build scale models "using resources available on-site in these locations".

The first stage, back in 2015, saw teams submit architectural renderings before they focused on the structural components and printing technologies they'd need.

Allen said 3D printing aids space research in its ability to minimise small and multiple parts.

"We don't want to be dealing with an 150-piece kit that needs to be assembled with special tools in an environment that is completely foreign to our astronauts when they arrive," she said.

"We want something like what we see in sci-fi movies, where you press a button and it builds itself.

"That's what we're moving towards and this technology is building us closer to that."

But Allen cautioned this is not an "end-all" solution, saying "there are still things to iron out".

"It's not just about how can we create these structures using new technology, but how does that technology work outside of Earth?"

Team Zopherus won second place in the Phase 3: Level 4 stage of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. The team’s design would be constructed by an autonomous roving printer that prints a structure and then moves on to the next site. Image: Zopherus

When it comes to materials, teams were tasked with using recyclables and/or materials found on the Moon, Mars or other destinations.

Allen said work in this space, including at Swinburne University, is moving towards resilient plastics such as carbon fibres that can be 3D-printed.

But she said making use of the Red Planet's terrain is key.

"There has to be a way to survive off what is on Mars," she said. "The spacecraft landers and rovers are telling us more about Mars and helping to characterise it, so we know exactly what material we can find there."

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But there are of course limitations, the habitats would need to be able to withstand intense radiation, a thin atmosphere and extreme temperature shifts.

"That's when we need to move to Antarctic explorations, where they have structures ... but they also have access to a lot of power," Allen said.

"We need to take what we have learned from our explorations of extreme places on our own planet to our endeavours into space to move forward with this new technology."

AI Space Factory's 'Martian polymer' can be made from materials already on or from plants grown on the Red Planet. Image: AI Space Factory

This year, the final phase  of the NASA challenge was broken into five levels that tested each remaining team's ability to put their designs together.

On Sunday, the final two teams -- the AI SpaceFactory of New York and Pennsylvania State University of College Park --  are printing small-scale versions of their shelters head-to-head. They'll be tested on strength, durability and material composition in front of scientists and budding fans.

NASA said its competition would help human space exploration and could offer lower-cost housing solutions to Earth.

As the space community races ahead with advances in spacecraft and rocketry, Allen said some ethical questions need attention.

"When we go to Mars, is it for a short science mission, or are we going to build biomes? It's not just about how, but what does that mean, and are we okay with that?" she asked. 

"But I think it's amazing that in our lifetime we are going to see that happen."

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