THE BIG IDEA: 3D Printers Creating Martian Habitats

Mars_23_aug_2003_hubble.jpgIt was just  barely a month ago that the world reacted with awe and wonder about the latest discovery from NASA: Water is present on Mars. They could not have timed that discovery or news any better as The Martian released in theatres a week later, capturing the imagination of moviegoers everywhere. Now, as we close in on Halloween, radio stations are gearing up to play the infamous 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Celebrating its 87th anniversary this year, Mercury Theatre on the Air will once again fill the airwaves with sounds of heat rays and giant metal walkers as Martians invade the Earth. 

Yeah, we are going to Mars.

Maybe I’m not, but humanity is going to Mars. It’s on the brain. Not just for the past decade but since the days of H.G. Wells, the Red Planet has been regarded as an eventual destination; and it would seem that we are now closer than ever before.

But is it going to be easy? No. Not by a longshot.

One of the factors concerning space travel in our age is weight. Whether it was Mercury, Apollo, or shuttle orbiter missions to the International Space Station, weight can keep ambitious missions to far-off points in the cosmos grounded. This is why we have to figure out how we are going to get essentials for habitats from Earth to Mars. It was accepted, if you want to build a house on Martian soil, you’ve got to take all the materials with you; and that is going to take up a lot of weight. The optimum approach would be to build habitats with materials native to Mars. The problem with that is unlike the explorers and frontiersmen who could build homes with wood, bricks, and similar materials in a perfect atmosphere, Mars is barren. Just rocks.

But with the discovery of water on Mars—subterranean water on Mars—we may be looking at a potential solution.


The idea is that Mars is so cold, if you can bring the water out from below the surface, it should freeze instantaneously. However, this ice should be so tough, so solid, that you build with it. While the concept of building Martian ice structures sounds very much like science fiction, the truth is we have a device that can do this. You know them 3D printers. NASA and America Makes hosted a competition to come up with the best design for Martian habitats, and the 3D printer solution was the brainchild of SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office). Their printer bores a tube underground, melts the water, and builds walls the resemble a beehive. The end result looks like a piece of modern architecture, absolutely beautiful.

Mars-Ice-House_Interior.jpgNow with this structure built, we are faced with a new hurtle needing to be cleared: sublimation. On account of the planet’s low pressure, science tells us the ice used for construction will just evaporate and go directly into vapor. This is why astronauts will take with them a very thin layer of plastic for the outside of the ice dome. That extra layer should keep the ice from sublimating. Inside the ice dome they will have atmospheric pressure so they don’t have to worry about sublimation on the inside. As extra protection, the printer continues to add thickness to the walls from the inside to keep the structure from melting.

Mars-Ice-House_cross.jpgAt this point, you might be wondering “What about the inside? Is this thing just a glorified igloo?” Along with the printer and the protective plastic, astronauts will take plants with them because you’ve got to create oxygen on a planet where oxygen doesn’t exist. By design and need for the hydroponics lab inside the structure, light will naturally come through, so you get this beautiful lighting everywhere you go, creating a very pleasant environment to live in. Another difference between the Martian Icehouse and the igloo is how the ice will handle radiation. Water absorbs radiation, and with our astronauts behind a “wall of water” they remain completely shielded from harmful radiation normally filtered out by our own atmosphere.

The Mars Icehouse promises to be a totally self-contained structure. Already with proof of principle constructions completed, SEArch and Clouds AO have shown that using a 3D printer and working with plentiful water source can build a house as big as anyone wants.

So if you were wondering why finding subterranean water on Mars was such a big deal, here’s why. We may be looking at where we will be landing after taking that giant leap back in 1969. 



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.