In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “Red Mars,” the first human colonists to arrive on the red planet use bricks made of indigenous materials to construct their habitats, presenting a solution to what has, in recent years, become an intractable problem insofar as establishing extraterrestrial colonies is concerned. With recent advances in 3D-printing, the idea of using technology to utilize resources available on site as building material has shifted from the realm of science fiction to one that is being actively debated by international space agencies, including NASA.
“Shelter is among the most basic and crucial human needs, but packing enough materials and equipment to build a habitat on a distant planet would take up valuable cargo space that could be used for other life-sustaining provisions,” NASA said, in a statement released over the weekend, announcing the launch of a $2.25 million competition to design and build a 3D-printed habitat for space exploration.
The competition, which is part of the space agency’s Centennial Challenges program, is divided into two phases. The first phase will award a $50,000 prize based on pure architectural merits, while the second one will give out two $1.1 million prizes for those who figure out how to manufacture individual components and habitats from “indigenous materials” or “indigenous materials combined with recyclables.”
Currently, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, making missions to establish colonies on Mars, or other planets for that matter, economically infeasible. This is where 3D printers that utilize the raw materials available on site to build lasting structures assume special importance. However, building a 3D printer that works reliably in the extreme Martian environment is also a challenge that is yet to be overcome.
“The future possibilities for 3D printing are inspiring, and the technology is extremely important to deep space exploration,” Sam Ortega, Centennial Challenges program manager, said, in the statement. “This challenge definitely raises the bar from what we are currently capable of, and we are excited to see what the maker community does with it.”
The competition is being held in collaboration with the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, also known as America Makes, and is currently open for registration.