NASA Picks Finalists For 3D-Printed Mars Habitat Contest

SEArch+/Apis CorNASA

While we’ve yet to send a manned mission to Mars, NASA is already envisioning what the housing for our first Martian colony could look like. Back in 2014, the space agency partnered with Bradley University in Illinois on a project that challenged citizen scientists to come up with designs for efficient Mars habitats, as well the technologies that would help future astronauts readily build dome-like structures once they land on the red planet.

Called the 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge, the competition has now reached an important milestone, as NASA is finally ready to announce the finalists — five teams that submitted the best designs for the 3D-printed Martian habitats.

Chosen from among 18 contenders from all over the world, the five winning teams are Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas; AI SpaceFactory of New York; Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi; SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York; and Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois.

Listed in order of their raking in the competition, the five teams are to split a cash prize of $100,000 based on scores won for their “digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a house on Mars using specialized software tools,” NASA noted in a recent news release.

“We are thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams that have approached this competition in their own unique styles,” Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said in a statement.

Next year, the finalists will be moving on from the virtual modeling stage of the competition to the actual 3D printing of their designs, as each team is expected to autonomously print a one-third-scale habitat by the spring of 2019. The prize for the contest’s final stage is a whopping $2 million.

According to the space agency, one of the requirements for the competition was that each 3D model had at least 1,000 square feet of living space, enough to house four astronauts for a period of one year. In addition, the designs had to be assembled largely autonomously, so that our first wave of Martian explorers would be able to occupy them soon after landing.

Aside from providing a comfortable living space, the 3D-printed habitats were required to anticipate the needs of their potential crews and contain plenty of space for life support systems, as well as other paraphernalia associated with life on Mars, such as “mechanical and electrical, spacesuit and rover hatches, and plumbing,” NASA explained last month, when the space agency selected the contest’s 10 semifinalists.

“They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets. We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward,” said Roman.

Winning Mars Habitat Models

As Tech Crunch points out, the semifinalists built their designs using Building Information Modeling software to make sure each habitat is perfectly functional up to a particular level of detail and takes into account wall thickness, heating, pressure sealing, and other elements, so that it can actually withstand the extreme conditions of the Martian environment. The teams were judged on completeness, layout, 3D-printing viability, and aesthetics — with the five victors being announced last week.

First place winner Zopherus came up with the idea of a large lander that creates a series of small habitat rooms by moving from one place to another to print and embed pre-built items.

Team AI SpaceFactory, which ranked second in the 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge, chose a vertical cylinder as the shape of its structure to both facilitate the printing process and make efficient use of space. Dubbed Marsha, their habitat design is centered on the human experience and aims to offer future Mars settlers a safe, comfortable, and interesting stay during their one-year-long space mission.

Coming in on third place, Kahn-Yates proposed a very original design of a highly spacious dome-like structure covered in translucent dots that let the light in.

SEArch+/Apis Cor went for a design that maximizes light, while also providing a strong protection against radiation. Their habitat is comprised of two pressurized areas huddled together is a slope-like shell.

Lastly, Northwestern University designed a highly practical parabolic dome, 3D-printed with reinforcing cross-beams on an inflatable vessel that makes up the base of the habitat.