Your Digital Self: America’s biggest housing challenge — 3D-printing a home on Mars

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By now everyone seems to know about NASA’s goal to land a human crew on Mars and explore the red planet.

However, we also know NASA doesn’t want to stop there. It wants humans to colonize not only Mars, but also the moon and be able to live on any other body we decide to visit. Staying long-term in a hostile environment is impossible without proper shelter — a habitat that can not only withstand harsh alien climates, but also protect the humans within.

To that end, NASA is conducting the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a competition where teams worldwide design and build sustainable shelters for human colonists on Mars. The challenge, which began in 2014, consists of several phases:

Phase 1, the Design Competition, required teams to submit architectural renderings and was completed in 2015. ($50,000 prize purse.)

Phase 2, the Structural Member Competition, focused on material technologies and required teams to create structural components. It was completed in 2017 and featured a $1.1 million prize purse.

Phase 3 (current), the On-Site Habitat Competition, challenges competitors to fabricate sub-scale habitats and has five levels of competition — three construction and two virtual. For the virtual levels part, teams must use building information modeling software to design a habitat that combines allowances for both the structure and the systems it must contain. The construction levels challenge the teams to autonomously 3D-print elements of the habitat, culminating in a one-third-scale printed habitat. The prize purse for this phase is $2 million.

“We are encouraging a wide range of people to come up with innovative designs for how they envision a habitat on Mars,” said Lex Akers, dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University, NASA’s partner. “The virtual levels allow teams from high schools, universities, and businesses that might not have access to large 3D printers to still be a part of the competition because they can team up with those who do have access to such machinery for the final level of the competition.”

The 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is managed through a partnership with NASA’s Centennial Challenges program and Bradley University. Bradley has partnered with sponsors Caterpillar CAT, -1.88% Bechtel and Brick & Mortar Ventures to administer the competition.

On May 16, judges selected 10 of 18 submissions to continue competing for the $100,000 prize. The competitors will have their designs reviewed and evaluated by a panel of subject matter experts from NASA and industry.

Here are the top 10 teams and their entries:

ALPHA Team — Marina del Rey, Calif.
NASA
Colorado School of Mines and ICON — Golden, Colo.
NASA
Hassell & EOC — San Francisco
NASA
Kahn-Yates — Jackson, Miss.
NASA
Mars Incubator — New Haven, Conn.
NASA
AI. SpaceFactory — New York
NASA
Northwestern University — Evanston, Ill.
NASA
SEArch+/Apis Cor — New York
NASA
Team Zopherus — Rogers, Ark.
NASA
X-Arc — San Antonio
NASA

The goal of this challenge is to use indigenous building materials. This is because the scientists plan initially to send autonomous machines on Mars and other planets, where they would construct habitats ready for astronauts’ arrival. The same methods and techniques could also be applied here on Earth, resulting in affordable housing solutions in environments that lack conventional building materials and manpower.

Finalists

With the third phase well under way, out of 10 remaining teams, judges and NASA experts have made the final selection of top five finalists that will share the $100,000 pool as follows:

1. Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas — $20,957.95
2. AI. SpaceFactory of New York — $20,957.24
3. Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi — $20,622.74
4. SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York — $19,580.97
5. Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois — $17,881.10

NASA and the judges consider the designs of these five teams to have what it takes to respond to the unique building challenges on Mars, taking into account atmosphere, as well as material transportation limitations and landscape layout.

Phase 3 is far from over, and there is still $1.9 million left in the prize pool. It will be interesting to see what the final level of the phase 3 brings: That’s when the sub-scale models will be printed and created in the real world.

What do you think about this competition? Who will win? Please let me know in the comment section below.