NASA Wants Your Help Figuring Out How to Build Space Habitats

Illustration for article titled NASA Wants Your Help Figuring Out How to Build Space Habitats

If and when we send colonists to Mars and beyond, we’re going to need habitats unlike any we’ve built before. To encourage out-of-the box thinking, NASA and America Makes are kicking off a $2.25 million dollar competition to design and build 3D printed space habitats.

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Image: Interstellar Mayflower, art by Stephan Martiniere

One of the biggest barriers to the construction of a space colony is shoring up the money to ship the building materials we’ll need. Since it currently costs roughly 10 grand to blast a pound of anything off our planet, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have been asking how we might get away with less cargo. Indeed, that’s one of the main thrusts behind asteroid mining, which could offer spacefaring humans a bountiful supply of water and metals.

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Other technologies that take advantage of in situ resources have been discussed in the context of a Martian habitat, but so far, the focus has been on how we might get enough water to drink and oxygen to breathe. While these vital pieces of the puzzle, we could save ourselves a lot of money and effort if we were able to manufacture infrastructure using indigenous materials, as well.

Which is where the new competition comes in. While some money is being offered for just plain awesome architectural concepts, the lion’s share of the prize pot focuses on the 3D printing technologies needed to fabricate infrastructure from in situ materials and recyclables.

NASA breaks it down for us:

The first phase of the competition, announced Saturday at the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, runs through Sept. 27. This phase, a design competition, calls on participants to develop state-of-the-art architectural concepts that take advantage of the unique capabilities 3-D printing offers. The top 30 submissions will be judged and a prize purse of $50,000 will be awarded at the 2015 World Maker Faire in New York.

The second phase of the competition is divided into two levels. The Structural Member Competition (Level 1) focuses on the fabrication technologies needed to manufacture structural components from a combination of indigenous materials and recyclables, or indigenous materials alone. The On-Site Habitat Competition (Level 2) challenges competitors to fabricate full-scale habitats using indigenous materials or indigenous materials combined with recyclables. Both levels open for registration Sept. 26, and each carries a $1.1 million prize.

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So, if you’ve always thought you had a brilliant idea for how to build a Martian city or a deep space generation ship, now’s your chance to find out. Worst case scenario, you come up with a cool concept. Best case, you become the architect or engineer behind humanity’s first outer space colony, with generations of Martians and Alpha Centaurians singing your praises. Doesn’t sound too bad either way. [NASA]

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Follow Maddie on Twitter or contact her at maddie.stone@gizmodo.com

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DISCUSSION

I don’t really know enough about mars to make a truly intelligent post on how to go about creating the right structures for survival on mars. However we have to start with what we know about the planet, obviously it’s a cold place (like really cold), but summer days near the equator can hit near 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but plunges to -100 Fahrenheit at night so you would need massive amounts of insulation that can more or less be retracted during the days. I’m thinking solar panels to collect and store energy in batteries during the day and to be used during the night.
The real problem is a lack of an atmosphere. I wonder if a very long term projects of creating greenhouses around the equator could be done, converting CO2 to oxygen via plants, among other gasses, could terraform the planet over decades. We could start with plants like cacti that require low amounts of water, and slowly replace those plants near the center of the ring of equator greenhouses with plants that require more water, and produce more oxygen as a result. From there we push replace more and more of these low water plants with more plants/trees with heavy water usage plants leaving the low water plants on the outer edges. Slowly, but surely we could give Mars an atmosphere making it more hospitable for humans. It would be a long slow and expensive process to get humans to Mars which largely relies on machines to build greenhouses, but it’s the way I see that would actually make a sustainable living space on Mars.