Quirks & Quarks·Pathway to Mars

How to build habitats on Mars and how to live in them

The series continues with a look at 3-D printed habitats and studies on the cognitive impacts that living and working on Mars could have on astronauts.

The latest episode in our series on what science and technology we need to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of what the MARSHA 3D printed habitat could look like on Mars (AI SpaceFactory)

This story is Part 4 of Quirks & Quarks' Pathway to Mars series. Each instalment will look at one part of the huge challenge of the most ambitious journey of exploration we've ever attempted — a human mission to Mars.

It seems a distinct possibility that a key piece of technology to allow humans to survive on Mars is being developed in New York City. That is where the design agency AI SpaceFactory is located, and where David Malott, the company's founder and CEO, turned his architectural skill for building skyscrapers to developing a 3D printed living space on Mars.

Last year AI SpaceFactory entered and won a NASA's 3D Printed Habitat Challenge with a design called MARSHA, a contraction of Mars Habitat. The team constructed a model building standing about two stories tall, but that was a scaled down version of what they imagine for Mars.

"MARSHA is an 800 to 1000 square foot habitat, four stories tall that can house 4 astronauts for up to two years," Malott told Bob McDonald in an interview on Quirks & Quarks.

A mock-up of the interior of a MARSHA Mars habitat. Don't ask how the potatoes were grown. (AI SpaceFactory)

The structure resembles a beehive or an egg standing on its end. MARSHA will be made by mixing crushed Martian regolith - rock and dirt - with a plastic-like polymer. Malott imagines using a renewable bioplastic called polylactic acid, which is extracted from corn and sugar cane on Earth, but which could be processed from plants grown on Mars.

Pathway to Mars - previous episods

The mixture can be extruded at high temperatures, a process Malott compares to pushing toothpaste from a tube, and used to build up the walls of the structure.

The regolith-polymer mixture, he claims, is two to three times stronger than concrete, and five times more durable than concrete in continual cycles of freezing and thawing.  It would also be relatively radiation resistant.

The plan is that MARSHA will be built on Mars by robots sent to the planet in advance of a human mission. The robots will first gather the material needed for construction, then 3D print the habitat using a vertically telescoping arm attached to a rover. 

AI SpaceFactory won NASA's 3D Printed Habitat Challenge with this 1/3 scale construct. The habitat is made from simulated Martian regolith mixed with polymer, which is then extruded by a robot arm. (AI SpaceFactory)

MARSHA would have four levels. In the design the lower level has air locks so the astronauts can enter and exit the habitat, and a lab. The second level would be a kitchen area, the third level would have small sleeping pods and a washroom. The top level would be the recreation and exercise area and would have windows allowing the astronauts to view the Martian landscape. 

Windows will be a technical challenge, but Malott thinks they would be well worth it. "Windows are good for the psychological well-being of the astronauts. It is important to preserve our humanity even when we go to live on another planet."

Simulating Life On Mars

A Mars habitat like MARSHA solves construction problems for a habitat on the Red Planet could look like. But here on Earth, researchers have already constructed a habitat that's meant to explore the physical and psychological challenges astronatus will face.

It is called HI-SEAS, and Canadian researcher Olav Krigolson said his visit there was the coolest thing he's ever done.

Olav Krigolson (far right) and colleagues explore the Mars-like landscape outside the HI-SEAS simulator in Hawaii. (Olav Krigolson)

Krigolson, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria, spent seven days at the facility late last year.

The HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) habitat is located on Hawaii's Big Island in an abandoned cinder rock quarry.  It is a geodesic dome and meant as a lab designed to study how humans behave and perform on Mars.

The site is a red volcanic landscape and even looks a little like Mars. It is surrounded by lava flows, with little to no plant or animal life around. 

For authenticity, the HI-SEAS 'astronauts' complete each day as real astronauts would on Mars. This included meals, exercise, lab experiments, sleep, even simulated walks outside. For communication with researchers not in the habitat, the inhabitants have the same 20 minute delay astronauts on Mars would experience as their radio signals travelled back to Earth.

Olav Krigolson (3d from right) and his team in the HI-SEAS habitat (Olav Krigolson)

Krigolson's visit was to test technology he's developed for portable, non-invasive and easy to use monitoring of brain states. He uses compact, portable EEG, or electroencephalogram, to measure electrical activity in the brain. During his trials he was able to successfully monitor five different aspects of brain activity: perception, attention, memory, learning and decision making. 

He was also able to observe changes in levels of brain activity caused by stress, depression and cognitive fatigue. 

Krigolson imagines this as a way to assess cognitive health and fatigue on what will be an enormously tiring and stressful mission. 

"The technology will work the same on Mars as it did in the HI-SEAS habitat"  Krigolson said. "I imagine though for the astronauts on Mars, the stress will be very different. We could always open the door and go down to the beach. You can't do that on Mars."