Phase 1 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge began in 2015 and we recently updated readers regarding the beginning of the Phase 3 On-Site Habitat Competition. There was a virtual stage before the actual construction stage, but the competitors are now in the final tests of the challenge and their achievements are impressive. AI SpaceFactory is one of the entrants and their habitat prototype was 3D printed with a “Martian polymer” that can be made from materials already on or from plants grown on the Red Planet.
The New York-based architecture and technology firm received a prize of $88,353 after their autonomously 3D printed sub-scale habitat called MARSHA was selected by NASA as one of the five finalists in the competition. Unlike other challengers that used concrete-based materials, AI SpaceFactory formulated their basalt fiber-reinforced polylactic acid (PLA) polymer based on what would be available on Mars. They had their material validated by a third-party lab and it was “proven to outperform concrete in every important way: superior tensile and compressive strength, extreme durability in freeze-thaw cycles, and enhanced ductility. The polymer also provides superior cosmic radiation absorption and thermal resistance (insulation) and can be made without water,” according to their press release.
The team employed in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to solve the problem of the rocket equation: every ten pounds of rocket (or cargo) requires 90 pounds of propellant. The more Martian materials that can be used to 3D print habitats, the less fuel is required to get there, which saves a lot of money.
Challengers were instructed to autonomously construct a water storage basin and AI SpaceFactory earned second place based on strength, impact resistance, and durability in extreme temperatures. The basin had to be 3D printed on a rocky surface and include a prefabricated valve that penetrates the wall of the basin; the valve also had to be autonomously inserted via a robotic arm. The basins were also put through hydrostatic and leakage tests. With space travel, the stakes are high, so the requirements of the competition are equally rigorous. As such, the top prize is $500,000. Needless to say, the AI SpaceFactory team is well motivated to demonstrate the feasibility of 3D printing habitats on Mars.
AI SpaceFactory’s 1,200-gallon basin was 3D printed in only 24 hours, which is incredibly fast according to 3D printing standards, but a significant amount of time considering that the final prototype habitats will be 3D printed in front of a live audience in April. Hopefully, they bring sleeping bags.