If and when astronauts finally set foot on Mars, potentially sometime in the 2030s, they will be greeted by a dust-covered habitat.
The folks at Foster + Partners want to design it.
The British firm was recently shortlisted among 30 finalists for the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, organised by America Makes and NASA. Designers and architects were called upon to imagine an environment that could sustain human life on the red planet, despite its harsh and unforgiving climate.
Though Foster + Partners — the design firm behind everything from Masdar City to Apple’s under-construction campus
— didn’t make it to the final round, the firm’s design got our attention for its commitment to detail.
Foster + Partners’ plan hinges on its Regolith Additive Construction (RAC) process.
Regolith is the loose, rocky layer that sits above solid bedrock. The task for Foster + Partners was working with that regolith to create a safe living environment.
Xavier de Kestelier, a designer on the project, says the foremost concern was getting the habitat set up without human aid. “In a normal project, you don’t really start with that,” he tells Tech Insider.
To build on Mars, Kestelier and his team decided to go with three rovers each performing a different task.
The largest that will parachute down are the “Diggers.” They move the Martian terrain to form 1.5-meter-deep craters where the habitat will sit.
The medium-sized “Transporters” then push that displaced rocky material over the top of the deflated habitat.
The resultant coating will form a protective barrier from the intense solar radiation and high temperatures on Mars.
Finally, small “Melters” will use microwaves to permanently fuse the loose Martian soil to the habitat.
“In that way, we can keep the cost down by having each type of robot doing one specific task,” Kestelier says. “So it’s not like a system you’d find with the Curiosity rover, which does many, many things.”
The 1,000-square-foot habitat itself was born out of careful consideration of human psychology and physiology.
Instead of walking normally around the habitat, astronauts will move around in one-third Earth’s gravity. Ceilings in the habitat are especially high for that reason, Kestelier says.
Size was a consideration for living quarters as well. They were designed to be small, so that astronauts would be forced to socialise with one another.
“These astronauts are depending on each other, and any communication with Earth takes roughly 20 minutes,” Kestelier says. “You want that team to be a really coherent team.”
Along with collaborating with climate scientists and explorers, Kestelier says the design team had another source of inspiration to marry beautiful design with rigorous science: Andy Weir’s novel and soon-to-be feature film “The Martian.”
“That’s how we started the project,” he laughs. “I bought a copy for the whole team.”
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