NASA's 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, which kicked off in 2015, is now well into its third and final phase. The latest stage has awarded five teams a share of US$100,000 in prize money for the best virtual models ahead of the hard part, 3D-printing scale models of their designs.

The multi-phase competition challenges designers and engineers to come up with a Mars habitat that can be swiftly 3D-printed using local materials. Prior phases of the competition concentrated on creative architectural renderings and initial development of material or structural components.

This final phase of the challenge first requires teams to generate realistic 3D models demonstrating the habitats being constructed, before the last stages culminate in the production of an autonomously 3D-printed one-third scale model.

This current virtual model stage has doled out a share of this stage's US$100,000 prize money to five winning teams. The rules stipulate habitats must have 1,000 square feet (92.9 sq m) of living space with plans for life support, plumbing, etc, to support four astronauts for 12 months.

The digital representations developed at this stage of the competition are presented using Building Information Modeling (BIM) software tools, suggesting a move away from conceptual idealistic designs and focusing more on actual pragmatic realizations.

"We are thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams that have approached this competition in their own unique styles," says Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenges. "They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets. We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward."

First place in this stage went to a project named Zopherus (pictured above). This proposal presents a spider-like pod where the habitable structures are 3D-printed inside a chamber. When complete, the legs lift up the pod to reveal the habitable structure and move on to the next location to build another structure.

The second placed entry (pictured above) is more aesthetically conventional but incredibly well-realized. The AI SpaceFactory presented a flanged shell that is comprehensively modeled to best manage the aggressive thermal effects of Mars. Out of all the winning entries this one is undoubtedly the most pragmatic and well-conceived.

Other highlights from the top five include a dome built atop an inflatable vessel, from Northwestern University, and a visually impressive but incredibly ambitious design from Kahn-Yates (pictured below).

The next stage will obviously be the most significant as the designers set out to bring these ingenious ideas into the real-world. The competition will conclude in early 2019 with an on-site competition that will involve scale models being built. Two million dollars in prize money is up for grabs in this final phase.

See the below videos from each of the top five prize winners outlining their individual virtual models.

Source: NASA

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