The first colony on Mars may live in 3D-printed homes

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In order to set up a permanent colony on Mars, people will need a suitable habitat to live in. So NASA set up a 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, which encouraged teams to design “digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a house on Mars.”

But it wasn’t the winning team that has garnered the most attention – it’s the team that came in second. In second place was AI. SpaceFactory, which came up with MARSHA, a cylindrical home printed in 3D by a robotic arm.

The benefits of a cylindrical design

Previous designs for human habitats on Mars have been shaped as domes. However, a cylindrical design is much more efficient for a number of reasons. Firstly, the arm of the 3D printer doesn’t have to stretch very far. Also, as AI. SpaceFactory highlights:

“Apart from being highly effective pressure vessels, they provide the greatest ratios of usable floor area to surface area and usable floor area to volume and diameter. Reducing surface area means using less material under less stress, reducing volume means reducing energy loads on mechanical systems and reducing diameter directly reduces structural stresses, especially at the base, where uplift forces will require anchorage into uncertain ground. Unlike domes they do not produce unusable overhead volume or unusable perimeter floor area.”

SpaceFactory have created their own material to build their cylindrical towers; a mix of locally mined basalt and renewable bioplastic (polylactic acid or PLA), which is processed from plants gathered on Mars. PLA can be made from corn starch, cassava roots, or sugar cane. However, the team hasn’t specified how many acres will be needed to grow enough plant material to build one of these cylinders.

It makes practical sense to grow the building material on Mars, rather than shipping the stuff, which would be incredibly energy intensive and time-consuming. The team points out:

“PLA has countless applications as an expendable material through the full mission timeline. Being a bioplastic, it has the added benefit of dual modes of in-situ manufacture: via the fermentation of carbohydrates by bacteria or via chemo-catalysis. On Earth, most PLA is derived from polysaccharides produced by plants. The same could be carried out on a future Mars settlement, where inevitable plant and other biological waste provide an opportunity to close material/ metabolic loops.”

A 3D-printed habitat with everything you need

The team at AI. SpaceFactory have designed MARSHA to ensure that a human colony will have everything they need to thrive on the Red Planet. It has a joint dry lab and kitchen (although eating where you also experiment might be risky), individual cabins, ‘sanitation pods’, a hydroponic garden, and a ‘skyroom’ (dedicated for recreational uses, like playing video games, and exercise).

Outside of the habitat, tasks would include dusting the solar panels, maintaining the nuclear plants, and tending to the PLA-producing crops.

A separate competition from HP – called the Mars Home Planet Challenge – saw teams develop a variety of fascinating designs for a future habitat on Mars. The winning entries all used dome designs, so it will be interesting to see what kind of design is eventually preferred and lived in.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says he wants to send the first humans to Mars in 2024, which he is “pretty optimistic” about. And he believes in setting up a permanent colony, adding:

“It will start off building just the most elementary infrastructure, just a base to create some propellant, a power station, blast domes in which to grow crops — all of the sort of fundamentals without which you cannot survive. And then really there’s going to be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints. I think Mars should really have great bars: the Mars Bar.”

About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.

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