In the coming decades, as humans leave Earth to expand the bounds of space travel, astronauts are sure to find themselves for the first time in habitats other than the International Space Station.
Clearly NASA has this in mind, as it awarded a group of architects, including Japanese couple Masayuki Sono and his wife, Yuko, the first prize in a design competition for a Mars habitat late last month.
With the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design Competition, the space agency sought to award the best design of a 3-D printed base for use by astronauts during deep-space exploration, including NASA’s journey to Mars.
The prototype, called Mars Ice House, created by the Sonos’ Clouds Architecture Office in New York together with another group of architects, has been awarded first place in the first stage of the contest. The results were announced on Sept. 27 in New York.
Participants were asked to design a habitat that would leverage 3-D printing techniques and Mars’ in-situ resources. The challenge is aimed at fostering the development of new technologies required to create a habitat using locally indigenous materials in space and on Earth.
“We were surprised with the results, as we had not expected such a creative and innovative approach could win the first prize,” Masayuki Sono told The Japan Times in a phone call Wednesday. “We were impressed with NASA’s openness to new, unique ideas and originality.”
Last month, NASA announced that there is strong evidence suggesting that more than 5 million cubic kilometers of water ice exists under the surface of Mars, enough to cover the planet to a depth of 35 meters. The space agency aims to send humans to the planet in the 2030s.
NASA claims the presence of liquid water not only boosts the odds of life on Mars, but also could make life easier for astronauts visiting or living on the red planet.
“The design uses ice, a material indigenous to Mars that is particularly adept at shielding radiation while still transmitting natural light inside the habitat,” Sono said, stressing that bringing light and a connection to the outdoors was imperative.
The design aims to create a protected space using the abundance of water and persistently low temperatures that characterize the Martian northern latitudes, which range from 20 degrees to minus 150 degrees Celsius.
Printed from translucent ice, the structure constitutes a multilayered pressurized radiation shell.
According to the architects, it can insulate inhabitants from the climate and, with absorbed water, diminish ultraviolet solar and galactic gamma radiation to safe levels with a shell that is just 5 cm thick, allowing natural daylight to stream inside.
The architects said the overarching form is a self-supporting 3-D printed ice shell that sits just inside a transparent fluorine-based plastic pressure membrane.
The design prioritizes the human experience by employing its verticality to highlight views of the outside while also allowing space for hydroponic gardens, Sono said.
While most of the participants used regolith, a layer of loose soil and mineral fragments that can be found on the surface of Mars, the winning team focused on a solution that would take advantage of resources to balance a crew’s mental and physical health.
Unlike regolith, which is believed to contain substances hazardous to humans, translucent ice allows the habitat to have windows that would afford inhabitants views of the Martian landscape. Studies show this would improve the astronauts’ morale and psychological wellbeing.
The structure also contains an intermediate zone where astronauts could experience the “outside” without donning a space suit, and hydroponic gardens that serve as recreational parks and help to supplement oxygen levels. A spiral stair leading to the habitat’s upper levels would provide the crew with exercise.
“By creating a beacon on the landscape, the exterior view of the design symbolizes both technical and cultural achievement of human as the first man-made structure on Mars,” Sono said.
The Mars Ice House, which houses four people, was selected out of 162 entries.
Monserrate Roman, NASA’s Marshall Center chief microbiologist, praised the finalists’ “imaginative and artistic” approach, in which they have taken into account the life-sustaining functionality that future space explorers will need in an off-Earth environment.
The prototype has been awarded $25,000.
The team consists of eight designers, including five members from SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture), a New York-based group of architects and designers engaged in human-supporting design concepts for space exploration.
The design has been developed in consultation with 14 international space experts, including scientists, astrophysicists, geologists, as well as structural and 3-D printing engineers.
Sono said both teams had conducted related research and made proposals in the past, though they were not specifically related to Mars.
Clouds AO was established in 2010 by Masayuki Sono and Ostap Rudakevych.
Sono’s works, which range from projects for national museums to public arts, include the winning design for the competition of the 9/11 memorial on Staten Island, awarded by the American Institute of Architects in 2005.
SEArch has been involved in academic space projects and related research for about a decade.
The competition was sponsored by NASA and the country’s National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, known as America Makes.
Team Gamma won second place for their semiautonomous multirobot regolith additive manufacturing system, which is used to create a protective shield around a modular inflatable habitat.
Third prize went to Team LavaHive for its design that uses a proposed novel ‘lava-casting’ construction technique utilizing recycled spacecraft materials and structures.