Setting up house is always a pain and when that house is on Mars, it’s a logistical nightmare. To make things a bit easier, Dmitry Zhuikov, Arina Ageeva, and Krassimir Krastev of ZA Architects in Germany have come up with a concept architecture for future Mars colonies, built underground by robots before the colonists arrive.
The idea behind the concept is to get beyond the life in a tin can approach that most Mars colony plans revolve around, and come up with something that can be built by robots using local materials. In particular, basalt.
Basalt has been detected on Mars by NASA rovers and is the most common material in the Martian bedrock. It has good insulating properties, and an underground structure made of it would provide excellent protection against radiation. It would also solve the problem of hauling building materials from Earth or trying to create some sort of Martian cement from the soil in practical quantities.
Robot excavators and builders would be sent from Earth and landed on Mars. These robots would hunt out basaltic columns like those that make up the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Similar columns were recently discovered on Mars in crater walls near Marte Vallis by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Once they found an area of such buried columns, the robots would test them for strength and then remove the weakest ones as an entry point. They’d dig down like ants and open up a subterranean space, leaving some columns behind as support. The waste material would be packed in berms around skylights and entryways to protect them from the wind and the highly corrosive Martian dust.
When the colonists arrived, they’d find the caverns almost ready for use. They’d divide the caverns into industrial, agricultural, public and residential areas, then install life support systems, power plants, water cracking plants, doors, windows, as well as a plant for making basalt roving. The latter is a fiber produced by taking basalt, crushing it, melting it at a temperature of 1,500ºC (2,700ºF) , and then spinning it like glass fiber. The result is an asbestos-like material with properties comparable to carbon fiber.
The designers see the roving as being used by the colonists for weaving spider-like webs as an architectural material. Given the enormous amount of energy needed to make the roving, how practical this idea is remains to be seen. Also, the renderings of the concept habitats do give the impression that the webs are less structural and more to prevent falling rocks from hitting the residents.
Practicality is also a question for Martian agriculture. According to the designers, Martian soil is suitable for growing crops, though the example they keep citing is asparagus, which is not exactly famous as a staple. Finding water and growing crops would make the colony less expensive to maintain, but it is one of those “first catch your rabbit” problems that may be harder to achieve in the Martian desert than at a drawing board back on Earth.