NASA is offering up to $2.8 million for the best design for a 3D-printable habitat on Mars

Next challenge – keeping your bored kid from running off with a Jedi. Picture: Disney

NASA is offering up to $2.8 million dollars for someone who can successfully design a habitat that can be 3D-printed on Mars.

The US space agency has been rolling out Mars challenges with cash prizes on almost a weekly basis.

In the past fortnight, the public have been invited to submit ideas for how astronauts can reduce their exposure to radiation ($US29,000) and what the first colony would need to survive ($US5000).

With its latest offer, the crowdsourcing element of NASA’s Journey to Mars program has entered serious cash territory, funded by NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which in 2005 saw $US4 million a year freed up in the US budget for NASA to “directly engage the public” in driving new technology.

First of all, here’s what you need to design:

Their new adopted home should contain everything needed to comfortably sustain human life, including cooking areas, sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities. Their jobs as geologists, land surveyors, prospectors, scientists, biologists, & engineers should also be considered while creating this structure, as it will act as a prototype for the one that they’ll reside in while on Mars.

The hard part is, the habitat has to be able to build itself from waste spacecraft parts and indigenous materials from the surface of Mars. It has to provide a minimum of 92 square metres of living space. And you also have to suggest a spot on Mars for it to build itself as well as a corresponding test site on Earth.

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The first phase was announced Saturday at the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. Teams have a year to develop architectural concepts that take advantage of 3D-printing capabilities. The top 30 submissions will make the finals and $US50,000 will be awarded to the winner at next year’s World Maker Faire in New York.

The serious cash part of the prize opens for registration on September 26.

The Structural Member Competition (Level 1) calls for ideas for new fabrication technologies using materials from the surface of Mars and/or old spacecraft parts. The On-Site Habitat Competition (Level 2) requires you to show exactly how your habitat would be built with these materials and what it would look like.

“We believe that 3D printing/additive manufacturing has the power to fundamentally change the way people approach design and construction for habitats, both on Earth and off,” America Makes founding director Ralph Resnick said.

Both carry a prize purse of $US1.1 million.

“We believe that 3D printing/additive manufacturing has the power to fundamentally change the way people approach design and construction for habitats, both on Earth and off,” program partner America Makes director Ralph Resnick said. It’s also hoped the technologies could be used to construct affordable housing in remote locations on Earth.

NASA’s 3D-printed rocket part. Picture: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

NASA is growing increasingly confident in the capabilities of 3D printing and what it means for space exploration. In September last year, NASA sent a 3D printer to the ISS, and in December, celebrated the printing of a ratchet wrench. It was the first time a design file had been transmitted from Earth to create a tool in space.

It also raises the tiniest first inkling that maybe astronauts on the first Journey to Mars may not be on the “one-way trip” that NASA is carefully preparing the public for.

Just last month, NASA 3D-printed its first full-scale, copper rocket engine part, a combustion chamber capable of withstanding temperatures of more than 2760C. Propulsion engineer Chris Protz said the goal was “to build rocket engine parts up to 10 times faster and reduce cost by more than 50 per cent”.

It’s still at least 10 years away from a launch, so who knows? Ten years has already proven to be a long, long time in 3D printing, or, as they were known in 2005, $45,000 “self-replicating rapid prototypers”.