NASA researchers are currently working on one of the biggest problems facing them with regard to astronauts setting foot on Mars, namely to build shelters for them to live and sleep in. As the possibility of a manned mission to Mars becomes ever more real with futuristic visions of populated colonies on the planet, NASA has been investigating different kinds of habitat designs that would offer the best protection to humans from the harsh environment. Over 165 habitat designs were accepted by NASA for consideration as part of their Centennial Challenges program. Using the public to put forth their designs led to some very creative solutions and all the applicants had 3D printouts of their designs. The ultimate winner was an ‘ice home’ or igloo design which might serve the purpose. These are inflatable domes covered in ice which will provide the astronauts with protection from extreme heat and high energy radiation. They also feature an inner and outer shell which allows for movement without a spacesuit and the possibility of growing plants.
The decision came up after a day of brainstorming in which needs, goals, and constraints were identified and novel out of the box ideas were examined before finally settling on the ‘Ice Home’ design according to senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz from NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia.
The Ice Home is similar in concept to an igloo but is an inflatable, inner-tube-like device that is covered with a thick sheet of protective ice when inflated fully. The advantage of the design is that it is lightweight, can be transported and set up by robots, and filled with water before the crew arrives on the planet. It would also make use of materials extracted from the planet’s surface and the water in the structure could potentially be converted into rocket fuel for the Mars Ascent Vehicle. It also serves the dual purpose of being a storage tank that can be refilled for the next crew.
The sheet of protective ice covering the structure when inflated protects astronauts from high levels of radiation such as cosmic rays that can penetrate the Martian atmosphere and damage human cells. This in turn could lead to cancer and severe radiation sickness. Ice offers a shield because it is rich in hydrogen which creates a barrier against the rays. Researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault, also from the Langley Research Centre, explained that the materials used in the construction of the Ice Home had to be able to withstand many years in the harsh Martian environment and resist ultraviolet and charged-particle radiation, perchlorates, dust storms, and possibly atomic oxygen. Another prerequisite was the weight of the materials which needed to be very light.
The team also came to the conclusion that burrowing underground on the Martian surface offered humans the greatest chance of survival as they would be protected from harmful things on the surface which is also extremely dry. Therefore the need for the Ice Homes to provide temporary shelter to the astronauts upon arriving on the planet’s surface. With its lightweight frame, easy construction, and ability to use water materials already present on the planet, the Ice Homes might be able to provide the most practical and durable solution. The shelters are an absolute necessity as, without them, the astronauts would need to find a way to get heavy drilling and digging machines on Mars to create ready-made shelters underground for the astronauts to move into upon arrival. This is not a feasible proposition due its complexity and cost.
The project and the design of the shelters are still in their conceptual stages but the prognosis is optimistic and hopeful that this is the way forward in helping early pioneers arriving to Mars to make the transition to a challenging and difficult environment.