As our most potentially habitable and buildable next-door neighbor (Venus having a much more hostile surface environment), Mars has exerted a strong fascination over humankind for centuries. From HG Wells’ War of the Worlds to Warner Bros’ Marvin the Martian, the idea of extraterrestrial life originating from the Red Planet has been a staple of popular culture.
In recent years, however, serious consideration has been given to earthlings traveling to Mars, rather than the other way around. Many consider that the first manned space flight to another planet is only a matter of time. Beyond that lies the tantalising prospect of actually building and colonising Mars.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working towards that goal, and it seems likely that other private companies will be just as heavily involved as countries are, in the race to colonise our neighbouring planet. While SpaceX is mostly known for the space travel and transportation aspect, however, we’ll also need to build structures once we arrive in order for any colonisation plans to succeed.
Here are 6 projects solving the problem of building on Mars
The Swiss Martian Garden
Having a proper understanding of the conditions and challenges that colonisers will face is a key element to living on Mars. To this end, Swiss researchers are constructing a ‘Martian garden’ near Basel in which to test a CLUPI (Close-Up Imager) camera that will be sent to Mars during the ExoMars mission, which is set to begin in 2020.
University of Basel professor Nikolaus J. Kuhn told Swiss public broadcaster SRF: “We are testing, for example, how the Mars Rover should drive over a stone we want to investigate, what position our camera has to be in and what sun conditions are best for capturing images.”
The idea is to use the camera to test for life on Mars, and to measure the conditions to ensure it’s habitable for humans.
Low-Tech Tools and High-Tech Solutions
If and when builders do get to Mars, some say they would rely on relatively low-tech tools and solutions. Others say that semi-autonomous diggers, transporters, melters, and a process known as Regolith Additive Construction (RAC) would be used to construct the buildings.
Speaking at the New Space Age Conference held at the MIT’s Sloan School last year, planetary scientist Phil Metzger said: “Here on the Earth, when we go to a remote location to do an engineering development project, we've learned that taking high-tech equipment isn’t really the right approach. What you want is appropriate technology. You want technology to be maintained using the local resources and local labour."
The main reason for this is that the colony will have to be largely self-sufficient. With current technology, it takes unmanned spacecraft around six to eight months to get to Mars – and that is only when the two planets’ orbits are at the right point relative to each other. It’s hypothesized that improvements in space flight technology could reduce this time, but colonists still would not be able to count on regular supply ships.
There will also be a limit to the weight that can be sent, meaning they will have to rely largely on local resources for their building materials— which as far as we know, are not very ecologically diverse.
One particularly low-tech but surprisingly effective proposal is simply to pound the ground with the equivalent of a ten-pound hammer.
Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, found that this almost ridiculously easy technique could be used to make Martian bricks that are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete. Lead researcher Yu Qiao and his team worked with worked with a NASA-formulated simulation of Martian soil and found that it contained miniscule iron oxide compounds that can bind the soil together when put under pressure to form a strong yet simple brick.
Qiao told Vocativ last year: “Our candidate research is on the materials level. We created coin-sized soil samples to scale up. We still don’t what the final system would look like. One possibility is we need a piling system. We need something to lift the hammer and then release the hammer to hit the soil. That would create sufficient pressure to turn it into a brick.”
While the brick was made here on Earth, Qiao said gravity did not appear to be a major factor and that the process should work in situ on Mars.
The Mars Ice House
Another possibility being explored is the use of 3D printing to create structures primarily out of Martian ice. The Mars Ice House project has already seen the team experiment with one-to-one ice printing on Earth, and they say they have developed a process that can turn subsurface Martian ice into vapor. This is then converted into liquid water and used to print solid structures in an environment that’s cold enough to instantly turn to solid ice.
Construction would start before the arrival of colonists or astronauts using digital manufacturing techniques and semi-autonomous machines.
The Mars Ice House project said that it has “outlined a deployment and construction sequence involving the use of a projected Mars descent vehicle, a deployable membrane, and semi-autonomous robotic printers to both gather and deposit subsurface water ice.”
Foster + Partners Mars Habitat
Another private company looking to join the race to build on Mars is Foster + Partners, who have already constructed a New Mexico ‘Spaceport America’ terminal for private space travel companies.
As part of a NASA competition, the company produced a concept for a human habitat built by robots. This again uses 3D printing and semi-autonomous robots but the material this time is ‘regolith’ – the loose rocks, dust and soil on the planet’s surface. The next phase of the NASA challenge involves the fabrication of complete habitats, meaning we should be seeing full-size prototypes soon.
The UAE’s Mars City
The Swiss Martian Garden is one thing, but the UAE has a tendency to think bigger than most and is set to build an entire city designed to simulate environmental conditions on Mars.
Mars Scientific City is part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre's Emirates Mars Mission, which aims to establish a viable human colony on the planet within a hundred years. Once built, a team will live inside the city for a year to help develop strategies for settling on a hostile planet in the long-term.
Announcing the project last year, Sheikh Mohammed said: "Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realise the most important human dream."
Humans colonising Mars might still exist in the realms of science fiction. But these examples show that strides being made in construction technology today, could mean laying the foundation of Martian settlements tomorrow.
Interested in learning more about how technology could impact the future of construction? Take a look at our free guide.