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The construction industry's space race: construction on Mars

Space construction By Takwa Dawdi, Graduate Engineer, Building Services – 07 December 2021

Computer generated image of Mars from a space ship


Takwa Dawdi in Dubai office

Takwa Dawdi

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A lot goes into the design and construction of a building. Each intricate detail is poured over for weeks and months by engineers, applying a science that we have perfected brick by brick over many years. What if we were to take this industry into space? The idea of permanent human settlements in outer-space still seems like science-fiction to many, but what we don’t realise is how close we actually are to this reality.

I recently came across a job advertisement for a ‘space architect’. The ad went on to describe this newly emerging discipline as an extension of terrestrial architectural design in extreme, harsh environmental conditions. Naturally, this sent me down a rabbit hole of research: Where does space construction meet terrestrial? What does it mean for our industry in the years to come? And most importantly, how do I keep my electrical cables and light fittings from floating at zero gravity?

Space construction, also referred to as ‘off-earth construction’, is a uniquely complicated challenge in and of itself. The first major issue designers will face is the absence of gravity and inapplicability of physics laws as we know them on earth. The extreme and unpredictable environment will also pose a problem, as lack of atmospheric pressure, high radiation, extreme temperature variations and low gravity levels render most common construction materials and methods obsolete. The absence of pre-existing utilities and infrastructure such as power, water and waste treatment are also problematic. Unsurprisingly, several organisations and research centres have already innovated solutions to these hurdles.

During one of the many experiments conducted onboard the International Space Station, NASA recently demonstrated their ability to manufacture a polymer called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a plastic that can be used to make various construction materials. ABS can also be re-used for 3D printing other pieces in outerspace, making it a sustainable choice for constructing life on a new planet.

Another innovative solution to the space construction is Made in Space’s Archinaut One, a machine that combines 3D printing and robotic arms to manufacture and install large structures in space. While currently still in the testing phase, the Archinaut is expected to be able to receive digital files from Earth and ‘print’ necessary structures with very high precision. One of the older and more amusing pieces of space machinery is CSA’s space crane – Candarm. Currently attached to the ISS and successfully performing maintenance procedures, the Candarm was based on regular earth-cranes and could potentially contribute greatly to automated space-construction.

With Mars being declared our closest habitable planet, missions to colonise it have been popping up in several countries in recent years. Reputable organisations have been working towards developing the most practical and feasible proposals for habitation on the ’Red Planet’, including plans for construction of habitable spaces that can withstand the unusual environments without taking away from the quality of inhabitant life.

Figure 1:
Mars Ice House section showing the vertical oriented lander and ice-shell structure.

Computer generated image of Mars ice house

Identifying water as one of the essential building blocks of human life, a winning proposal for one of NASA’s habitat design competitions was the Mars Ice House. The concept consists of two 3D-printed structural ice domes with the habitable space running through the centre in the form of a vertical lander, making use of in situ materials for a more sustainable design. Whilst the structure and materials have been chosen to maximise thermal comfort and protect against the harsh environment, not much detail has been provided at this stage regarding the more technical aspects of the building, such as power distribution and ventilation.

The main power source for most outer space projects is solar power. For the International Space Station, this has led to the installation of Li-On batteries which run alongside the photovoltaic system to power the station’s facilities when it is not in direct sunlight. The station also makes use of an Active Thermal Control System to protect occupants from extreme temperatures.

Another noteworthy habitat design would be AI Space Factory’s MARSHA. With sustainability and self-sufficiency being at the centre of this project, the structure is enabled by in situ resource utilisation – the concept of using local Martian materials to support human exploration as opposed to earth-manufactured products. The design consists of a dual-shell vertical structure with four floors including laboratories, recreational spaces and an in-house garden. Allowances have also been made for power and data inputs from an external source as well as sanitation pods.

Figure 2:
A render of the MARSHA habitats by AI Space Factory.

Planned 3d printed habitat in Mars

Despite starting out as science-fiction, space habitation has become far more viable and is the next achievable goal in the space exploration industry. While there is still a long way to go, advancements in technology and the rapid growth of interest in the field will mean we could be designing for extra-terrestrial applications very soon.On a final note, the idea that humanity is searching for a “Plan B” planet can perhaps be used to describe the extent of the global environmental crisis we are currently facing. Perhaps this is one of the main messages we need to take away from these projects. Will there still be a need for a plan to protect against human extinction if we change the way we live?