Will You Apply to Live in a 3D-Printed Mars Habitat?

Mars Dune Alpha, located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, will aid in long-duration science missions.

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

As the technology matures, additive manufacturing represents in many industries a new pathway to solutions for engineering challenges. Because the technology builds objects from a powder, wire or liquid stock, instead of cutting or forming larger pieces of material, it uses material efficiently, and stock material often takes up less space. In addition, like other digital manufacturing technologies, additive manufacturing can produce parts flexibly yet repeatably. Parts can also be designed with advanced, complex geometry, which facilitates part consolidation and lightweighting. For these and many other reasons, additive manufacturing has generated significant interest in the aerospace industry—particularly at NASA.

3D Printing in Space

3D printing has been used on the International Space Station (ISS) since 2014 and has promising applications in several areas in space. To start, 3D printers on board spacecraft may allow NASA to reduce its spare part inventory. NASA carries about 7,000 pounds of spare parts to the ISS every year, says Tracie Prater, a materials engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center.

“There are 29,000 pounds of hardware spares/replacement units on ISS and another 39,000 pounds on the ground ready to fly when needed,” said Prater.

One interesting consideration for additive manufacturing in space (though not on the surface of a planet like Mars) is the lack of gravity. Certain additive technologies rely on gravity to work (consider the nightmare of a powder bed in zero g.) However, other technologies such as fused filament fabrication may not face the same challenges. In addition, low or zero gravity presents opportunities. Objects can be printed using orbs of liquid without the need for supports or heavy folding structures that would otherwise present challenges with gravity.

In addition to polymer and metal additive initiatives for spare parts on the ISS, additive manufacturing technology is being tapped in a larger format for building projects such as habitats and large structures. According to ICON, developer of additive manufacturing construction technologies including robotics, software and building materials, future space exploration habitats have the potential to be 3D printed with additive construction technology to eliminate the need to launch large quantities of building materials on multiple flights, which is cost-prohibitive.

ICON was recently awarded a subcontract through Jacobs supporting NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) as part of the agency’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) to deliver a 3D-printed habitat, known as Mars Dune Alpha, to the Johnson Space Center. ICON’s Vulcan construction system will complete a 1,700-square-foot structure, designed by architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), that will simulate a realistic Mars habitat to support long-duration, exploration-class space missions.

If that weren’t exciting enough for space exploration enthusiasts, there’s also an opportunity for you to participate. This summer, NASA began its recruitment for the long-duration Mars mission analog study inside the 3D-printed habitat. Applications to participate as crew are being accepted through mid-September 2021 for the one-year analog mission that starts in fall 2022. To learn more or to apply, visit www.nasa.gov/chapea/participate.

ICON has experience in building home structures using large-format additive manufacturing. The company delivered the first permitted 3D-printed home in the U.S. in 2018. Since then, the team developed 3D-printed communities of homes in Mexico, Austin, Tex.—and even sold 3D-printed homes in the U.S. The company also has projects with the Department of Defense and military forces.

ICON’s Vulcan II Printing System

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

Printer Specs

  • Printer height: 8.5 feet
  • Printer width: 28 feet
  • Weight: 3,800 pounds
  • Print speed: 5 to 7 inches per minute
  • Print bead size: 1 inch tall by 2 inches wide
  • Print area capability: As large as the space allows
  • Material: Lavacrete (proprietary)
  • Water requirements: 2 gallons per minute
  • Interface: Integrated tablet

The ICON printer system uses vertically integrated robotics, software and materials to build structures. A gantry system controls the deposition of the Lavacrete material, a cement-based mix designed to be pumped and extruded without slumping, bonding between layers and hardening quickly. According to the company, the mix can be programmed for specific attributes for each print. The machine is controlled by proprietary industrial control software and a tablet-based user interface, accompanied by a print setup software that allows floor plans to be converted into printable files. The machine has been made available for sale only recently, and ICON began working with new partners in 2020. Prior to that, the machine was run exclusively by ICON. According to the company’s website, the Vulcan System is capable of printing homes and structures up to 3,000 square feet. Today, the system does not produce multistory structures and has a maximum print height of 10.5 feet. The Vulcan print head can deposit material at a rate of 5-10 inches (12-25 centimeters) per second.

ICON also has a material mixing and pumping system called Magma.

Printing a Base on Mars

CHAPEA is a sequence of three one-year Mars surface mission simulations at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. The missions will provide insights and information to assess NASA’s space food system, as well as physical and behavioral health and performance outcomes for future space missions. NASA will use research from the Mars Dune Alpha simulations to inform risk and resource trades, in support of crew health and performance for future missions to Mars when astronauts would be expected to live and work on the Red Planet for long periods of time.

 “This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans,” said Jason Ballard, cofounder and CEO of ICON. “Mars Dune Alpha is intended to serve a very specific purpose—to prepare humans to live on another planet. We wanted to develop the most faithful analog possible to aid in humanity’s dream to expand into the stars. 3D printing the habitat has further illustrated to us that construction-scale 3D printing is an essential part of humanity’s toolkit on Earth and to go to the Moon and Mars to stay.”

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

(Image courtesy of ICON.)

Life in Mars Dune Alpha will resemble the expected experience for those living in a future Mars surface habitat. Designed by BIG, the layout of the structure is organized in a gradient of privacy. Four private crew quarters will be located on one end of the habitat; dedicated workstations, medical stations and food-growing stations will be located on the opposite end, with shared living spaces positioned in between. Varying ceiling heights vertically segmented by an arching shell structure will accentuate the unique experience of each area to avoid spatial monotony and crew member fatigue. A mix of fixed and movable furniture will allow crew members to reorganize the habitat according to their daily needs, as will the customizable lighting, temperature and sound control—all helping to regulate the crew’s daily routine, circadian rhythm and overall well-being.

 “Together with NASA and ICON, we are investigating what humanity’s home on another planet will entail from the human experience,” said Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG. “The data gained from this habitat research will directly inform NASA’s standards for long-duration exploration missions, and as such will potentially lay the foundation for a new Martian vernacular. Mars Dune Alpha will take us one step closer to becoming a multiplanetary species.”