To help put the first generation of space colonists on the right footing, Purdue University's Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH) Institute is building a one-quarter-scale space habitat similar to ones that may one day be built on the Moon and Mars. It is hoped habitats boasting a combination of "resilience, intelligence, and autonomy" will stand up to the many hazards space can throw at them.

Getting to another planet is one thing, but setting up shop there is an entirely different matter. If astronauts are ever to go beyond short-term stays on the Moon and Mars, their habitats will have to be able to not only stand up to the rigors of regular occupation, the harsh environment and natural disasters like quakes, but also detect hazards and respond to them proactively to prevent cascading failures.

According to Shirley Dyke, head of the RETH Institute, the sort of habitats that one sees in films and television, as well as many concepts aren't very realistic and that what is needed is something more sophisticated. To help achieve this, the new scale habitat will contain a mixture of physical components that can be directly tested and others that are virtual. This way, items can be swapped out and recombined to determine what is the most robust configuration.

With a focus on the key characteristics of resilience, intelligence, and autonomy, the RETH approach doesn't just mean making a habitat, but a smart one that can sense, analyze, and anticipate problems. In practice, this means making structures that are tough enough to stand up to hard radiation, quakes, and sandstorms, and also adapt to them.

Dyke says that part of the solution is to equip the habitat with an array of sensors to monitor its status, and that the model will be used to seek the best way to achieve this for the structure, life support and other vital systems. In addition, autonomous robots will be used to identify, diagnose, and fix structural problems. In this way, a major fault, like a hull breach, can be handled without the danger of cascading failures reaching various systems.

In the end, the main goal of the US$15-million project funded by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will be to produce a habitat that will allow for a continuous presence on other worlds.

"Periodically, humans are going to show up and the habitat has to be ready for them," says Dyke. "The habitat has to transition to a state where humans can come in, live there comfortably, and after a month or two, leave. Then the habitat will continue operating until the next time humans are there."

The video below discusses the RETH project.