My husband and I are science fiction fans, and as such own some of Ray Bradbury’s works, including short story collection The Martian Chronicles. I especially like “The Million-Year Picnic,” when a family from Earth goes to live on Mars, and the father introduces his children to Martians by showing them their own reflections in the water. But living on Mars someday seems less and less like science fiction, which is why NASA issued the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge back in 2015, co-sponsored by Bradley University in Illinois and America Makes, so that the humans who eventually travel to Mars will have some form of shelter from the Martian environment.
“These competitors are working to advance critical systems needed for human space exploration. We are on the edge of developing new, innovative and disruptive ideas that could change our future,” Lex Akers, the dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University, said in a statement from NASA. “This type of work will allow us to explore new ideas as we partner in creating solutions for our world and beyond.”
The 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, which is one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, tasked citizen inventors to create viable, 3D printable structures, that people could potentially live in on Mars or the moon, out of recyclable materials and simulated Martian soil; if you think it’s crazy that people are trying to build things out of soil from Mars, don’t forget about the 3D printed bricks that the European Space Agency made out of sunlight and moon dust. 165 submissions were received, and after whittling that down to just 30 semifinalists, the first of three challenge phases, focused on design, finished in September of 2015, and Phase Two, with an emphasis on materials and recycling, was launched this past October.
An artist’s illustration of a Mars habitat and vehicle. [Image: NASA]
The second phase of the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, the Structural Member Competition, focuses on the material technologies that are necessary to 3D print structural components, and is broken down into three sub-levels. Level One ended in March, and the winners were announced in May, with $100,000 awarded to the top two teams. Level Two began shortly after, and participants were required 3D print a structural beam for bend testing. NASA has just announced the winners of this level, and awarded over $200,000 to the winning teams. The scores were based on the maximum load that the 3D printed beam was able to support, and the use of recycled materials, or similar materials to those found on Mars.
NASA explained that there will be two main issues with launching shelters from Earth to planets like Mars – the habitat has to fit inside a rocket payload faring, which either limits its size or requires it to be shipped in multiple pieces, and the additional mass that has to be launched, which makes a mission more expensive. A possible way around these limitations is to send autonomous robots out into space ahead of time. Then, to save on launch costs, the robots can build habitats out of recycled materials and resources found on the planet before humans land.
[Image: Team Moon X]
Team Moon X Construction of Seoul, South Korea took first place in this level of Phase Two, though international teams are not eligible for prize money. The 3D printed beam by Team Form Forge, from Oregon State University, won second place, and was awarded $67,465. Third place, and $63,783, was awarded to the team from Foster + Partners and Branch Technology in Chattanooga, Tennessee; that team also won first place in the first sub-challenge of Phase Two.
Fourth Place: University of Alaska Fairbanks, awarded $35,573
Fifth Place: CTL Group Mars of Skokie, Illinois, awarded $34,202
Sixth Place: Robocon of Singapore
A team from Pennsylvania State University also competed, but did not meet the structural requirements of the challenge and so was not awarded a cash prize.
[Image: Team Form Forge]
According to Rob Mueller, the senior technologist for advanced projects development at the Swamp Works laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center, thermoplastics, which are plastic polymers that can be molded once they’re heated, could potentially be collected from discarded packing materials on Mars, or even created on the planet itself, using its soil and atmosphere, and then used to build the habitats.
Mueller, who is also a subject matter expert for the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, said, “Recyclable plastics were used in the top three scoring teams’ [projects], indicating that a thermoplastic concrete material may be viable for 3D printing habitats on Mars.”
Bringing the project back down to Earth, Mueller said that areas in need of affordable housing, or that lack traditional building materials, could also use 3D printed recyclable plastics and discarded trash to build habitats.
Teams will now begin work on Level 3, the On-Site Habitat Competition, of the challenge’s second phase. This level, which carries a $1.5 million prize purse, will focus on automated 3D printing systems that could autonomously construct a habitat, and the teams will be required to 3D print a dome structure and give the judges samples for crush testing. The competition will take place at the Caterpillar Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois, from August 24th-27th. The event is open to the public on the 25th and 26th. Discuss in the Habitat Challenge forum at 3DPB.com.