NASA called for designers in 2015 to envision a 4-astronaut Mars habitat for their 3D printed habitat competition. The challenge was to create a plan to 3D print and build a design that used primarily resources indigenous to the Mars planet. I saw this competition as a perfect platform to develop new techniques for re-creating architectural spaces the same way high-performance objects are built, such as satellite and spacecraft. This kind of technology upgrade would allow for the construction of high-performance housing units for human beings that would be capable of withstanding the hard and unpredictable Mars landscape, and could also be built efficiently and quickly in a new Martian environment. If proven applicable, this kind of technological advancement could open the possibility of successful habitation on planets beyond our own.
In collaboration with the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, my Hybrid Composites team began doing extensive research into the materials sciences, a science that involves the discovery and design of new materials. For our proposed design, basic materials, such as local Martian sand proved to be less than sufficient for re-creating the 3D printed concrete-like shells we wanted to develop. Alternatively, we found that the combination of locally harvested Martian basalt from the ground, and carbon from the CO2 rich Martian atmosphere, would allow for the production of high performance composite fibers, later to be soaked in fast curing polymer resins, a similar technique used for the production of boats, planes, satellites, and spaceships.
While processing the basalt fiber is fairly simple, processing the carbon fiber requires the use of an artificial photosynthesis device. Essentially, an artificial photosynthesis device would replicate the natural process of photosynthesis by sucking up the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere, then converting the CO2 into carbon and oxygen. The carbon taken from the CO2 would be used for creating the carbon fiber, while the oxygen would either be stored for later use or released back into the environment in an attempt to modify the Martian atmosphere into one more breathable for human life (terraforming.)
With our materials in place, we then began developing a plan for building the housing units that would allow for minimal human labor in a harsh Mars environment. By engineering a robotically controlled extruder that could weave together basalt and carbon fibers pre-soaked in an optimized, instantly curing polymer resin, web-like structures could be built and ready to be lived in almost instantly. Robotic arms and air vehicles would then assist in adding finishing architectural elements that would not be accessible to our tech on the ground.
By exploring these new cutting-edge techniques in architecture, we want to inspire future architects to design with a higher degree of freedom, flexibility and efficiently. We hope that the success we had with our winning design can help push for more development of new and improved processes that we can then use to improve housing here on Earth, and hopefully in the near future, create sustainable housing on Mars and beyond.