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When there’s life on Mars

When global warming sees us all decamp to Mars, we could be housed in comfy 3D printed, locally sourced pods

The Sun, despite it’s greater distance compared to Earth, is a viable power source on the surface of Mars.
The Sun, despite it’s greater distance compared to Earth, is a viable power source on the surface of Mars. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes

A super-strength cocoon, 3D-printed in layers using material extracted direct from the surface of Mars, is one of five winners in the latest phase of a NASA off-world construction competition.

Marsha (MARS HAbitat), by architecture and technology collaboration AI SpaceFactory, is a vertical housing pod with a double-shell facade designed to combat aggressive atmospheric conditions including rapidly fluctuating temperatures and radiation.

The system took second prize in the second phase of a $2.5 million NASA competition to build a 3D printed habitat for deep space exploration.

Marsha’s facade would be 3D printed in situ by an autonomous robot, using a mix of basalt fibre extracted from Martian rock and a renewable bioplastic derived from plants grown on the planet’s surface. Reliance on local resources would eliminate the cost and payloads associated with using rockets to transport materials from Earth.

Jeffrey Montes, ‘space architect’ at AI SpaceFactory, told RIBAJ: ‘Mars is essentially a vacuum so the material must be very strong to hold air inside the building. We have tested the material’s mechanical properties on Earth, creating pellets that were fed into a 3D printer and then deposited.’

  • Marsha could be grouped into small clusters.
    Marsha could be grouped into small clusters. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • Dust devils are common on Mars. Due to the low atmospheric pressure, however, they are not dangerous to humans or structures.
    Dust devils are common on Mars. Due to the low atmospheric pressure, however, they are not dangerous to humans or structures. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • Marsha protects humans from the harsh Martian environment, including the frigid temperatures, dust storms and radiation.
    Marsha protects humans from the harsh Martian environment, including the frigid temperatures, dust storms and radiation. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • Astronauts observe the construction of a new habitat. Due to its small footprint, Marsha can be printed using a stationary machine.
    Astronauts observe the construction of a new habitat. Due to its small footprint, Marsha can be printed using a stationary machine. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • A sustained human presence on Mars will require an ensemble of robotic actors filling roles including scouting, surveying, transporting cargo, harvesting materials and assembling and printing structures.
    A sustained human presence on Mars will require an ensemble of robotic actors filling roles including scouting, surveying, transporting cargo, harvesting materials and assembling and printing structures. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
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The vertical structure was conceived to maximise usable space across three levels of accommodation. The inner chamber would be disengaged entirely from the outer and built from a ‘Lego-like’ system of modularised components, including air recycling units and other MEP.

The sun on Mars is just 40% the intensity of Earth, so large windows cut into the sides of the structure and a lightwell in the centre would boost natural light, supplemented by artificial circadian lighting set up to match rhythms of daylight that astronauts are accustomed to on Earth.

Traditional ideas of terraforming by building low-lying domes or buried structures were rejected in favour of a more gentle aesthetic, said Montes: ‘We considered the blankness of Mars as a landscape and what astronauts would want to see there, and what the architecture should say about humans. We have created a form of micro-village that could become the nexus of a whole new kind of culture.’

A key current obstacle to making the idea work in reality is the need to mimic the structural and thermal properties of homes on Earth, with multiple layers including rockwool insulation, timber structure, gypsum boards, vapour barrier and so on, in a printed monolithic structure.

  • Marsha’s two- shell structure creates flexible, hybrid spaces which offer a variety of lighting conditions, privacy, noise levels and uses.
    Marsha’s two- shell structure creates flexible, hybrid spaces which offer a variety of lighting conditions, privacy, noise levels and uses.
  • The ground floor offers a flexible work space geared towards messier activities such as sample processing, repair of equipment and preparation for extra-vehicular activities (EVAs).
    The ground floor offers a flexible work space geared towards messier activities such as sample processing, repair of equipment and preparation for extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • The second floor, acting as the main social hub, features the main laboratory/ dry lab as well as the kitchen.
    The second floor, acting as the main social hub, features the main laboratory/ dry lab as well as the kitchen. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • Marsha’s architectural design is integrated with its lighting design, which automatically changes in sync with the time of day and the color and intensity of light.
    Marsha’s architectural design is integrated with its lighting design, which automatically changes in sync with the time of day and the color and intensity of light. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • The zone between the two shells functions as a light well and a space for stairs to gentle spiral from level to level.
    The zone between the two shells functions as a light well and a space for stairs to gentle spiral from level to level. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • The third level features the most private zones including private sleeping pods and bathroom. Semi-closed pods offer a zone to retreat to without promoting total isolation.
    The third level features the most private zones including private sleeping pods and bathroom. Semi-closed pods offer a zone to retreat to without promoting total isolation. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • The skyroom is the uppermost level. Standing below the large water-filled skylight, this level offers a place for the crew to exercise, relax and socialise without tasks.
    The skyroom is the uppermost level. Standing below the large water-filled skylight, this level offers a place for the crew to exercise, relax and socialise without tasks. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
  • The ground floor features Marsha’s wet laboratory in addition to the majority of its mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment.
    The ground floor features Marsha’s wet laboratory in addition to the majority of its mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment. Credit: AI SpaceFactory/ Plompmozes
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‘The capabilities of robots and what they can print is improving, but finding a way to design a monolithic print in a way that will function more like a traditional wall assembly is going to be a special challenge,’ said David Malott, creative director and CEO of AI SpaceFactory.

Phase 3 of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is under development and will focus on the fabrication of entire habitats.