NASA’s 3D-printed habitat competition is now in its 3rd phase with the first two phases already completed in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
To create habitats for human settlement in Moon or Mars or other planet, one of the methods is to carry the construction material to the far off celestial object or coming up with a way to manufacture those structures without sending the material from Earth.
NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a Centennial Challenges competition, seeks ways to create or develop the technologies needed to create such habitats on-site, and challenges citizen inventors to lead the way. NASA says that the previous phases of the competition have already produced encouraging results and that they are interested to check what the 3rd phase has in store.
The goal of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is to foster the development of new technologies necessary to additively manufacture a habitat using local indigenous materials with, or without, recyclable materials. The vision is that autonomous machines will someday be deployed to the Moon, Mars or beyond to construct shelters for human habitation. On Earth, these same capabilities could be used to produce affordable housing wherever it is needed or where access to conventional building materials and skills are limited.
The now-open Phase 3: On-Site Habitat Competition challenges competitors to fabricate sub-scale habitats using indigenous materials with or without mission-generated recyclables, and offers a $2 million total prize purse. Phase 3 has five levels of competition. Interested teams may register through Feb. 15, 2018. Full details, schedule and rules can be found here.
Sustainable Mars habitats proposed by MIT through ‘Redwood Forest’
Students and scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have managed to win Mars City Design 2017 contest through their proposal of ‘Redwood Forest’ to create sustainable habitats on Mars.
Sending humans to Mars is becoming a goal of not only US space agency NASA but also some private space companies including SpaceX. While we are at least a decade or two away from that goal, scientists have already started studying and researching methods and ways in which we can build habitats on Mars.
Mars City Design 2017 is one such competition that was held recently with the goal of coming up with proposals for building sustainable habitats on Mars. A team from MIT not only participated but also won through their proposal called ‘Redwood Forest’. The team’s proposal involves creation of domes or tree habitats that offer open, public spaces containing plants and abundant water and housing for up to 50 people.
As per the proposal the water would be harvested from the northern plains of Mars. Further, each of these domes or tree habitats will be sitting on top of a network of underground tunnels, or roots that will provide access to private spaces as well as easy transportation and protection from cosmic radiation, micrometeorite impacts, and extreme thermal variations.
Further, each of the tree habitats in Redwood Forest will have the capability of collection solar energy and to use it to process and transport the water throughout the tree. The water will fill the soft cells inside the dome to offer protection to the inhabitants from radiation, supply hydroponic farms for growing fish and greens, and manage heat loads.
The design also includes a proposal on using solar energy and water to produce rocket fuel, oxygen as well as hydrogen for the fuel cells that would power vehicles on Mars.
3D Printing on Mars?
A University of Central Florida professor is working with NASA to figure out a way to extract metals from the Martian soil – metals that could be fed into a 3-D printer to produce the components of a human habitat, ship parts, tools and electronics.
“It’s essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it,” said Pegasus Professor Sudipta Seal, who is interim chair of UCF’s Materials Science and Engineering program, and director of the university’s Advanced Materials Processing & Analysis Center and NanoScience Technology Center.
NASA and Seal will research a process called molten regolith electrolysis, a technique similar to how metal ores are refined here on Earth. Astronauts would be able to feed Martian soil – known as regolith – into a chamber. Once heated to nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the electrolysis process would produce oxygen and molten metals, both of which are vital to the success of future human space exploration. Seal’s expertise also will help determine the form those metals should be in that’s most suitable for commercial 3-D printers.
NASA intern Kevin Grossman, a graduate student from Seal’s group, is also working on the project, which is funded by a NASA grant. Grossman said he hopes future projects in similar areas can grow the current partnership between UCF and the research groups at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
NASA is already working on sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. The agency has begun developing plans for life-support systems and other technology.
NASA isn’t alone. Elon Musk, billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is working on his own plan. Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit, is touting a plan to send dozens of volunteers from around the world on a one-way trip to colonize Mars.
They all agree that for sustainable Mars exploration to work, they must be able to use resources on Mars that would otherwise require costly transportation from Earth – a concept known as in situ resource utilization. That’s where Seal’s research comes in.
“Before you go to Mars, you have to plan it out,” Seal said. “I think this is extremely exciting.”