Mars Ice HouseMars Ice HouseThe Mars Ice House was one of the winning entries from the first phase of NASA's 3-D printed habitat challenge. (Photo: SEArch/Clouds AO)

NASA asks public for help creating 3D-printed habitats for Mars

Some eye-popping designs have already been submitted, and we have your first look.

Guess what I'm not going to start this article with? A Matt Damon/Martian reference about Mars. Nope. That would be too easy. The best way to start this article is by quoting a real-life, legendary astronaut. Someone who not only has looked to the stars and said "Let's do this!" but has actually stood on the moon and watched the Earth rise over the horizon.

"I think that the occupation of Mars is, in my mind, an absolute certainty," Buzz Aldrin told From The Grapevine recently. The 85-year-old, the second man to ever walk on the moon, has made the human colonization of the red planet his new mission. A recent speaking tour on the topic took him to South Korea, the U.K., Australia, and several stops throughout the U.S. Sending humans to Mars was also the topic of his keynote address at an international space conference held in Israel last month.

Aldrin told us he believes the work to get humans to the red planet could begin before the end of the decade. The first step, he says, will be to send robots to build habitats; clearing the way for the eventual arrival of the first Mars colonists sometime before the year 2040.

On that last point, NASA is aligned with Aldrin's vision. The space agency, already working on the plans to get astronauts to Mars, is now seeking the public's help on how best to help them survive once they get there.

Earlier this year, NASA and America Makes launched the first phase of a multimillion-dollar competition to design and build a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration and an eventual human mission to Mars. The idea is to have robots take advantage of local resources to 3D-print structural materials onsite. Not only would this save from having to ship heavy equipment, materials and structures from Earth, but it would also result in a more sustainable Mars colony.

From the more than 160 designs submitted to NASA, the 30 highest-ranked were placed on display and judged at the 2015 World Maker Faire in New York City. Below are some of the groundbreaking, unusual and beautiful designs from the winning teams. Could one of these hint at the future of real estate on Mars?

Team Tridom

Bubble BaseTeam Tridom's 'Bubble Base' would be created using a swarm of drones on the surface of Mars. (Photo: Team Tridom)

Taking home honorable mention is this inflatable structure by Tridom, a construction robot company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, founded by a young entrepreneur who's only a few years out of college. The team's "Bubble Base" would begin with a controlled explosion to create a small crater on the surface of Mars. A swarm of construction drones would then use the Martian soil to build structural blocks, while also taking advantage of the red planet's low pressure to easily inflate a reinforced, radiation-resistant skin as a dome.


Team LavaHive

LavaHiveThe LavaHive is created using a unique process called 'lava-casting.' (Photo: LavaHive)

The LavaHive, a collaboration between ESA European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, and LIQUIFER Systems Group in Vienna, Austria, is a modular design made of recycled spacecraft and local materials. What's unique about this habitat is the use of "lava-casting" in its creation. Once deployed, construction drones would melt martian rocks and mold them into walls, floors and other structures. The sub-habitats would then be made airtight with a sprayed epoxy. The design took home third place at the competition.


Team Gamma

Team GammaTeam Gamma's winning design involves a two-stage construction process. (Photo: Foster + Partners)

Created by U.K.-based architectural giant Foster + Partners, the Gamma is designed to have two stages of construction. The first involves semi-autonomous "diggers" choosing a site and excavating a foundation. An array of inflatable habitats would then descend into these craters. Once operational, a team of drones would melt the Martian soil and create an in-situ shield around the habitats. The process, known as Regolith Additive Construction (RAC), would protect the structures from radiation and Mars' extreme temperatures. The design took home second place at the competition.


SEArch/Clouds Architecture Office

Mars Ice HouseThe Mars Ice House was created by a team of astrophysicists, geologists, structural engineers and 3D printing experts. (Photo: SEArch/Clouds AO)

New York City-based SEArch/Clouds AO was one of the few entries that sidestepped the use of Martian soil in favor of something more elegant – ice. The innovative structure would use the abundance of liquid water and low temperatures in Mars' northern latitudes to create a dual-layer ice shell. The five centimeters thick shield, all 3D printed by specialized robots, would reduce exposure to radiation and extreme temperatures. Excess sub-surface water harvested by these ice bots would be used for the hydroponic growing of plants within the habitat. The entry, which is explained in greater detail here, took home first place at the competition.

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