Space

Out of this world igloo beckons early settlers on Mars

Out of this world igloo beckon...
The Mars Ice Home is an inflatable structure that makes use of locally derived water to shield inhabitants against cosmic rays
The Mars Ice Home is an inflatable structure that makes use of locally derived water to shield inhabitants against cosmic rays
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The Mars Ice Home is an inflatable structure that makes use of locally derived water to shield inhabitants against cosmic rays
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The Mars Ice Home is an inflatable structure that makes use of locally derived water to shield inhabitants against cosmic rays
Astronauts might have to spend months on Mars at each time, hence the need for a sustainable habitat that can function as a second home
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Astronauts might have to spend months on Mars at each time, hence the need for a sustainable habitat that can function as a second home
Thanks to the ice pockets, the Ice Home can be set up not just at the poles but also the equator, where temperatures can be warmer
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Thanks to the ice pockets, the Ice Home can be set up not just at the poles but also the equator, where temperatures can be warmer
Discussing  developments in inflatable structures at NASA's Langley Research Center
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Discussing  developments in inflatable structures at NASA's Langley Research Center
The ice allows natural light into the interior, keeping occupants connected to diurnal cycles while windows enable views of the surrounding landscape 
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The ice allows natural light into the interior, keeping occupants connected to diurnal cycles while windows enable views of the surrounding landscape 
Layout of the second storey of the Ice Home
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Layout of the second storey of the Ice Home
Layout of the second-storey of the Ice Home, which includes provisions for micro-farning
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Layout of the second-storey of the Ice Home, which includes provisions for micro-farning
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By now, it's pretty much a given that human beings will be going to Mars eventually. While Elon Musk, Boeing, NASA et al. continue to duke it out to see who can take us to the Red Planet first, scientists have begun looking at another pertinent question, namely: Where are we going to live once we get there? The latest design concept unveiled by researchers at NASA's Langley Center makes use of an abundant Martian resource – water – to bring the igloo into the space age.

Past ideas have included a show home constructed out of Martian regolith, a 3D printed ice house, inflatable shelters made from recycled spacecraft materials, and using robots to build subterranean basalt shelters. Just like the aforementioned concepts, the idea behind the Langley Centre's Ice Home is to use the planet's resources to build a habitat that would protect inhabitants from the elements and harmful galactic cosmic rays, as well as minimize the costs of transporting raw materials from earth.

Astronauts might have to spend months on Mars at each time, hence the need for a sustainable habitat that can function as a second home
Astronauts might have to spend months on Mars at each time, hence the need for a sustainable habitat that can function as a second home

The Ice Home was developed in collaboration with the team from Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) and Clouds Architecture Office (Clouds AO) that won first prize in the first round of NASA's 3D Printed Habitat Challenge Design Competition and is a "sound engineering solution," says Langley senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz. Ice Home principal investigator Kevin Kempton, part of the Langley team, goes one step further and declares it "currently the best solution out there for an early Mars outpost" as it offers several advantages over underground bunkers and aluminum structures.

One of the Ice Home's key features is its inflatable outer shell, which can store water (and there is a lot of it that can potentially be mined on Mars) in cellular pockets and use it as a shielding material for cosmic rays. In addition, there's also the possibility the water could be converted into fuel for the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Thanks to the ice pockets, the Ice Home can be set up not just at the poles but also the equator, where temperatures can be warmer
Thanks to the ice pockets, the Ice Home can be set up not just at the poles but also the equator, where temperatures can be warmer

Secondly, the Ice Home's lightweight design offers early colonists a practical advantage as it can be transported and deployed easily with simple robotics. In the case of underground bunkers, one would first need to excavate the soil, which would in turn require the use of heavy machinery that would need to be transported from earth.

Finally, the ice would also allow natural light to pass through, a seemingly trivial but important factor to consider for maintaining mental health and morale in an alien environment.

"All of the materials we've selected are translucent, so some outside daylight can pass through and make it feel like you're in a home and not a cave," says Kempton.

The ice allows natural light into the interior, keeping occupants connected to diurnal cycles while windows enable views of the surrounding landscape 
The ice allows natural light into the interior, keeping occupants connected to diurnal cycles while windows enable views of the surrounding landscape 

To maintain indoor temperatures at a comfortable 72º Fahrenheit (22º Celsius), carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be used as an insulation layer between the structure's interior and outer ice shell. Kempton also believes that the Ice Home has the potential to hold pressure better than most 3D printed structures made of regolith – the pressure in its living quarters is expected to be around 14.7 pounds per square inch. A key highlight of the Ice Home is a pressurized workspace large enough for a crew of four. Here, they'll be able to work on robotic equipment without having to wear a pressure suit all the time to avoid the danger of inhaling toxic dust particles. "When we go to Mars, we will stay there for a long time," Kempton told Space.com. "We will need a place to service the robotic equipment that will be out there working for us in very difficult environments. Doing work while wearing pressurized gloves is a lot like wearing clown gloves, and simple things are hard to do and your hands get tired real quickly."

That said, this project is still in its conceptual stages and further iterations could very well be in the pipeline. While ice exists in plentiful supplies on Mars, scientists have yet to find an efficient and cost-effective way of extracting it from the ground. Based on hypothetical rates (i.e. one cubic meter - or 35.3 cubic feet - per day), it would take more than a year, or 400 days to be exact, to fill up the shell with water. Comprehensive testing would also have to be conducted to ensure each aspect of the technology is able to work in the harsh Martian landscape. Apart from cosmic rays, colonists will have to contend with ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, and dust storms, points out Langley researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.

Perhaps it is worth noting that Rob Mueller, a senior technologist at NASA and one of the judges of the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, described the winning Ice House design by SEArch and Clouds AO as "the most innovative but maybe not the most practical." Indeed, the use of water is actually a detriment in Phase 2 of the competition, which will be assessing entries on their practicality and feasibility.

In any case, this is just one of many potential concepts for long-term habitation on the Red Planet. However one thing is certain: Though the early Mars settlers will be boldly going where no man has gone before, they will not be having it easy, hence the importance of having not just a functional temporary abode but a decent place to call home.

"After months of travel in space, when you first arrive at Mars and your new home is ready for you to move in, it will be a great day," says Kempton.

Sources: NASA, SEArch

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8 comments
Bob
Interesting design but the cosmic rays and other radiation will quickly degrade the outer envelope. Getting enough water may be more difficult than digging an underground living space. Near the poles the water would stay frozen but near the equator there will be a daily freeze cycle that would stress the structure. Life on Mars will basically be living like moles to avoid the radiation. Almost everything done outside will have to be done remotely. A lot of equipment will need to be sent there ahead of time before any colonists arrive. Why everyone wants to jump straight to Mars before perfecting the needed survival technology on the moon seems to evade common sense. We need a moon base first.
Racqia Dvorak
"abundant Martian resource – water" Wow. Now that's an assumption. First, that the water there will be easy enough to get that using it as a building material instead of regolith would make any kind of sense. Second, that any colony on mars wouldn't have desperately more need of water in basically every other conceivable usage of water. This is one of those "it looks pretty and neat" concept projects that does nothing but employ artists and waste everyone else's time.
Racqia Dvorak
Bob couldn't have said it better: "Why everyone wants to jump straight to Mars before perfecting the needed survival technology on the moon seems to evade common sense. We need a moon base first." Seriously, the only thing that Mars has up on the Moon in the short term is a higher gravity, but I don't think that either amounts would be enough to counteract the negative effects on human physiology.
Nik
Anyone using CO2 as an insulation, is going to freeze their nuts off! If CO2 was an effective insulation, it would be in worldwide use, now. The fact that it is not, speaks volumes. Don't believe the ''Carbon Tax Scam!'' Water is heavy, if it is available in sufficient quantities, which is yet to be proven, a series of thin, light, reflective surfaces would probably be more practical, in an inflated structure.
Wolf0579
When considering the pressure to go to Mars over going back to the Moon, I'm reminded of the pressure to invade Iraq that seemed to magically appear in all the media, almost simultaneously, despite the loud, clear voices saying why it was an invalid idea.
FollowTheFacts
...yes, but...will they bring weapons... (not completely meant as a joke...) ...otherwise I agree with Bob...but Mars also has another advantage, a 25 hour day, close enough for comfort one might think...
VirtualGathis
@Nik - I agree. CO2 as an insulation baffles me. Aerogels provide an infinitely better insulation, they might be tricky to manufacture on Mars, but this inflatable habitat is going to have to be manufactured here on Earth then inflated and filled on Mars anyway. Aeorgel is the lightest man made thing on earth so it shouldn't add hugely to the difficulty of transporting it to Mars. @Bob - the polar region is the intended target for the colonization due directly to the presence of water ice. As for your assertion that it is an assumption that water is present and available... Thanks to recent readings from the new instruments like Mars Express they have found large sub-surface deposits. Ref https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/mars-ice-deposit-holds-as-much-water-as-lake-superior, so the water is there in very large quantities that are not completely inaccessible and might be reasonably easy to acquire. Despite these I do agree that an incremental colonization plan might be better. Use orbital habitats to acquire the knowledge of the space environment and long term living in space, move to the lunar Lagrange points next and a lunar colony as a proof of concept. The idea being that when mistakes are made support is available within a reasonable time frame. Having to wait two years for replacement parts or a rescue crew would pretty much doom the colony in the event of a major problem on Mars. So until the tech and protocols are developed jumping straight to Mars is risky at best.
Harry Jones
I guess we should ask, "Why are we doing this?" Is it to take advantage of resources there?...no. Is it in case the earth eventually becomes no longer viable to hold human life?...well possibly, but why not spend money on trying to improve the situation on our already "purpose made" home, or cope with changing circumstances here, rather than travel into space and start again in a totally inhospitable, lethal environment? Is our planet already doomed? I think there is a LOT we could do here first.