By GREGORY ZELLER //
With this month’s discovery of liquid-water lakes resting beneath the ruddy surface of Mars, humankind took another giant leap toward the potential colonization of the Red Planet.
Mars is not Earth’s closest planetary neighbor. That distinction belongs to Venus, which – at its closest orbital point – is just 23.6 million miles away, compared to Mars’ closest pass at 35.7 million miles. But with a sulfuric-acid atmosphere and a surface temperature besting 800 degrees Fahrenheit (the hottest in the Solar System, even though Mercury is closer to the sun), Venus is not a viable option for human exploration.
That means Mars, for all intents and purposes, is humanity’s next stop. The surface is dry, dusty and cold – the average temperature is a frosty minus-81 degrees Fahrenheit – but the atmosphere, while thin and unbreathable by humans, is something we can maybe work with (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon, even traces of oxygen).
And now, according to Earthly observes, there are even copious underground lakes of straight-up, if somewhat briny, H20, just waiting to be tapped.
Bottom line: Landing and living on Mars is quite doable, by today’s science. But the first enterprising astronauts to plant a flag in the Martian soil are going to need habitats fitting some fairly specific criteria.
Enter Scott McLennan, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Geosciences. For the past several months, McLennan has been working with fellow geniuses employed by New York City architectural firm AI SpaceFactory to design housing capable of sustaining human life on Mars.
This week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that the final frontier-focused team – which also includes experts in engineering, robotics, planetary science and other disciplines related to space architecture – is one of five groups sharing top honors in Level 1 of the final stage of the space agency’s 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge competition.
In cahoots with Illinois-based Bradley University, the competition cosponsor, NASA chose the five winners based on digital representations of the “physical and functional characteristics of a house on Mars,” created using “specialized software tools,” according to the space agency. The five teams will share the $100,000 award doled out for Level 1-Phase 3 of the overall challenge.
The AI SpaceFactory team, including McLennan, earned $20,957.24, finishing just a few cents behind Arkansas-based Team Zopherus, which earned $20,957.95. The prize money – down to the penny – was based on scores assigned by a panel of NASA, academia and industry experts, with judges evaluating 18 total submissions from enterprising teams around the globe.
Other finalists include the Kahn-Yates team ($20,622.74), representing Michigan-based architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates and Mississippi-based commercial/industrial builders Yates Construction; NYC-based SEArch+/Apis Cor ($19,580.97), representing Space Exploration Architecture and Apis Cor, a leading expert in the emerging science of 3D-printed buildings; and a team of scientists from Illinois-based Northwestern University ($17,881.10).
The AI SpaceFactory design, dubbed MARSHA, “demonstrates how public university and private enterprise partnerships can lead to innovative and cutting-edge technologies for space exploration,” according to McLennan, who advised his teammates on the geochemistry and mineralogy of the Martian surface.
Besides looking cool, the Mars housing needs to sustainably and securely address several basic human needs, including air, water and power supplies; food storage and preparation; toilets and bathing facilities; and adequate protection against those chilly Martian nights – not to mention meteor impacts, a fairly common occurrence due to that extremely thin atmosphere.
Noting they have “approached this competition in their own unique styles,” Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said the space agency was “thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams.”
“They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets,” Roman added. “We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward.”
NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, which blasted off in 2014, now enters Level 2 of its third and final phase, also known as the On-Site Habitat Competition, in which the five finalists will face their biggest hurdle: 3D-printing scale models of their winning designs.