Scientists, astrophysicists, geologists, architects, structural and 3D printing engineers around the globe are working on materials and designs that would create habitat for future settlements of humans on the red planet
Words: Revati Rajwade
Human civilisation is on the cusp of an outstanding new chapter which will indeed go down in history. However, the extraordinary feature this time is that this history will also be read on planet Mars.
The future provides endless new possibilities with Nasa’s Mars Mission and other exploratory probes of our neighbouring planet. Plans are underway to craft a whole new world there just like our ancestors did on earth thousands of years ago. The thought of being born in this era where humans will be building an entirely new environment on an alien planet and settling there is enthralling.
Never mind the fact that the only way this mission would help all the common people left behind on earth is that we can use phrases like ‘People have shifted to Mars and we aren’t even allowed to go to Bali for a vacation’. This would particularly prove to be useful when offices deny us our fundamental right to a holiday.
But it is essential that we are armed with information regarding our future hometown in case a sudden drastic turn of events lead to a radical change in our address.
Amongst those working on information regarding the Red Planet, a Netherlands-based organisation is working towards the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars. The target year to send its first batch of humans is 2026. The unmanned mission is estimated to depart earth in 2024 in order to welcome humans into their new homes when they land there two years later.
The first batch of humans has been selected after an elaborate process and is being extensively trained. Questions have been raised about the programme’s genuineness and ethics but the fact remains that their schedule is captivating.
As we have grown up with the old adage of food, clothing and shelter being our basic requirements for survival, there is a great level of planning and research related to fulfilling these requirements prior to some chosen humans shifting base from earth.
Colonising Mars will truly be the next giant leap for mankind. Hence, people all over the world are deliberating about these three aspects. Several options are being considered regarding the provision of shelters.
Proposals of this magnitude require the expertise of professionals like scientists, astrophysicists, geologists, architects, structural and 3D printing engineers.
Newer technologies are being devised and adopted for the accomplishment of this unique mission.
In fact, last year Nasa organised a 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design competition, which was designed to ‘advance the additive construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for earth and beyond’.
This aimed mainly at the possibilities of creating a habitat on Mars. Architects across continents suggested various themes for the proposed housing colonies on the planet. The chief governing factor for any construction is the availability of raw material.
The surface of Mars is primarily composed of basalt and hence, this has come across to be the logical building material instead of transporting materials from earth.
The root of this possible solution lies in the fact that construction has to be economically viable. Moreover it has been deciphered that basalt is a good material to create insulation and produce basalt roving which is in fact, stronger than steel.
One option suggested by a team of architects from Germany is an expedition of robots to the planet as a precursor to human settlement. The robots would be programmed to cave into the Martian surface. After preliminary inspection, they would drill basalt, moving down and increasing the diameter of withdrawn rock with each step, until it reaches strong pillars that remain as columns.
Using generated basalt roving, the robots would weave a spatial spider-like web. This would be used as spaces for households and other pre-determined functions. The intention behind staying below the surface is protection from radiation.
Skylights on the surface would fulfil the requirement of light. Another design option provided by the office of famous architect Norman Foster envisions a 3D-printed abode housing four astronauts. The raw material to be used will be regolith – the loose soil and rocks found on the surface of our neighbouring planet.
The process of actually creating the building material, fusing loose Martian soil with microwaves involves the same principles involved in 3D printing. A team of semi-autonomous robots would start the build by digging meter-deep craters to prepare for a delivery of inflatable modules.
This process is designed to take place with minimal human input thus ensuring an adaptive system that doesn’t rely on extensive earth-to-Mars communication.These Martian designs have evolved from distilled research and analysis and are a melange of conceptual and experiential approaches.
However, a totally different line of thought emerged in the Nasa competition. The “Mars Ice House” design, which looks like a translucent, smooth-edged pyramid won accolades.The design vocabulary of this built form is based on the premise of bringing light and ingraining a sense of connection.
Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office, an architecture and space research collective, was the brain behind this pioneering concept.
Another design option provided by the office of famous architect Norman Foster envisions a 3D-printed abode housing four astronauts. The raw material to be used will be regolith – the loose soil and rocks found on the surface of our neighbouring planet.
“The innovative structure draws on the abundance of water and persistently low temperatures in Mars’ northern latitudes to create a multi-layered pressurised radiation shell of ice that encloses a lander habitat and gardens within,” noted the architects.
The raw material in this case is Mars’ water supply to be used in the form of ice. It features a pair of pods formed from ice and placed one inside the other to insulate inhabitants from the planet’s inhospitable climate – which can range from a temperate 20 degrees celsius to minus 150 degrees celsius.
Responding to the wide range of submissions, Monsi Roman, programme manager for Nasa’s Centennial Challenges, noted: “The creativity and depth of the designs we’ve seen have impressed us. These teams were not only imaginative and artistic with their entries, but they also really took into account the life-dependent functionality our future space explorers will need in an off-earth habitat.”
This statement alone defines the prominent role of these professionals who hold the key to the future.Which of the designs proposed in the competition would see the light of the day for being the most practical and durable solution is a much anticipated decision.
However, amidst all the euphoria, utmost care has to be taken to curb exploitive human nature which would lead mankind to augment and repeat the mistakes committed on earth.
Of the several views expressed, some include seriously harmful practices such as dumping earthen construction materials onto the alien surface. This highlights the inclination this plan possesses towards polluting our new world before it is even occupied.
We have been provided with a clean slate and it is imperative to diligently hold the reins while drafting an expansion of this degree.
The onus is on us whether we nurture our future homeland or seek refuge in our exploitative ways. Time would provide vivid answers and till then, all that we the commoners can do is to wait with bated breath. The countdown has begun.
Revati is an Architect and Interior Designer by profession and a writer by passion. She can be reached