MIT Researchers Experiment with 3D Printed Habitats for Mars
Andrew Wheeler posted on November 05, 2015 |
Space travel and the Martian habitat provide numerous challenges for settling the Red Planet

Sustaining human life on Mars is becoming a real consideration for NASA. So real, in fact, that they are awarding $2.25 million to the winners of the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, a design-build competition that considers the possibilities of 3D printing a suitable human habitat on Mars. The contest, co-sponsored by America Makes, asked participants to design a structure that could be used on Mars by 2035.

The MIT-designed Martian habitat. Image courtesy of MIT.
The MIT-designed Martian habitat. Image courtesy of MIT.

 The move toward 3D printing as a solution for architecture on Mars is due to a number of challenges NASA faces in getting to and building on the red planet. Delivering conventional building materials aboard a spacecraft traveling to Mars would weigh too much and be prohibitively expensive. Using 3D printing technologies with Martian indigenous materials should save on weight and cost—to the point where habitation finally becomes feasible.

The challenge then becomes how to build on a planet that has temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius for most of the year, a third of the gravity of earth, and (most importantly) a lack of atmosphere that would require any structure to be heavily pressurized.

Mueller, who works on 3D printing buildings along their stress lines rather than in horizontal layers, and Lavallee, who works with new thermoplastic composite materials, were able to combine their expertise to design a 3D printer that shapes the composite material with fiberglass to solidify and form the architectural structure.

On Mars, the thermoplastic material would be created from mining hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using a process developed by several of the students on the project. Another key element of the design uses silica from Silica Valley, recently discovered by the Spirit Rover, to make glass for the structure.

The MIT team did not win this round, with first place going to Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office. However, the MIT team members are considering entering future rounds that have higher prize amounts and greater requirements, such as building full-scale structural components and an entire habitat. Despite their loss, Mueller was happy to experiment with cutting edge 3D printing building technologies while Lavallee was able to continue his work with innovative thermoplastics.

Recommended For You