Texas-based additive construction company ICON just announced that it’s been charged with creating a 3D printed habitat, called the Mars Dune Alpha, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, also in Texas. The company received a subcontract through Jacobs supporting the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) for its Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) sequence, and will use its next-gen Vulcan concrete 3D printing system to fabricate a 1,700 square-foot structure that will simulate a realistic Martian habitat that can support long-term exploration science missions in outer space.
The structure is being designed by architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, which is based in Copenhagen, Barcelona, New York, and London.
“Together with NASA and ICON, we are investigating what humanity’s home on another planet will entail from the human experience. The data gained from this habitat research will directly inform NASA’s standards for long-duration exploration missions, and as such will potentially lay the foundation for a new Martian vernacular. Mars Dune Alpha will take us one step closer to becoming a multiplanetary species,” said Bjarke Ingels, the Founder and Creative Director of BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
ICON is just as prolific at 3D printing homes on Earth as it is at moon-related construction 3D printing. Just last year, the company received funding from NASA as part of a government Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract. With this contract, adding to its prior funding rounds that have netted ICON more than $40 million total, the company and BIG launched Project Olympus to begin developing a space-based construction system that can support future Moon exploration.
“Bjarke Ingels and the team at BIG are incredible thought leaders in the architecture space,” said ICON’s CEO and Co-Founder Jason Ballard. “It was important to have a partner who believed in this transformative role of the future of construction and who could help us imagine pioneering new frontiers — both materially, technologically and environmentally.”
Using additive construction technology to build non-Earth habitats for space exploration will be a more cost-effective solution in the long run, as astronauts would no longer need to send a lot of building materials to space over multiple flights. There have been other related initiatives as well, such as experimenting with bioinspired regolith composites and moon dust in order to send even less materials to space.
“This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans. Mars Dune Alpha is intended to serve a very specific purpose–to prepare humans to live on another planet,” Ballard explained. “We wanted to develop the most faithful analog possible to aid in humanity’s dream to expand into the stars. 3D printing the habitat has further illustrated to us that construction-scale 3D printing is an essential part of humanity’s toolkit on Earth and to go to the Moon and Mars to stay.”
ICON and BIG are designing this structure for CHAPEA—a set of three one-year Mars surface mission simulations to be held at the Johnson Space Center. During these analog missions to prepare for future space missions, participants will gather information and report their insights regarding NASA’s space food system, and their performance outcomes, along with behavioral and physical health, will be assessed throughout. Then, NASA will take what it’s gleaned from these simulations to determine overall risk and work to support crew performance and health for potential missions that could have astronauts living and working on Mars long-term.
Not only is this 3D printed Martian habitat simulation being announced today, but NASA has also begun recruitment for the mission analog study inside the habitat today. Crew applications are being accepted through mid-September for the first mission, which begins in the fall of 2022.
Before you apply, you might want to know what you’re in for—as cool as it sounds, life in Mars Dune Alpha won’t be a piece of cake. The structure and simulation will closely resemble the potential experience that astronauts will have living in a future Martian surface habitat. Privacy is key when you’re sharing space with other people, so four private crew quarters will be on one end of the habitat, while medical stations, workstations, and food-growing stations will be at the other end; shared living spaces will be in the middle.
In order to avoid crew member fatigue and spatial monotony, the ceiling will feature varying heights, along with an arching shell structure, to highlight the uniqueness of each different area. Participants will be able to organize the habitat as it best fits their daily needs thanks to a combination of movable and fixed furniture and customizable temperature, sound, and lighting control. All of these features will help crew members regulate their circadian rhythms and daily routines, as well as their overall well-being.
From cars, homes, and furniture to eyeglasses, clothing, shoes, seawalls, and everything in between, there’s a major sustainability push around the world, and in our industry, as we work to lower our collective carbon footprint and save this planet we call home. That’s why these 3D printed space habitats are so important—if we ultimately fail, a back-up plan will be necessary, and living on Mars is the best one we’ve got.
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