NASA Releases Cool Designs For Mars ‘Igloos’

A simple ingredient for shielding future Mars explorers from space radiation could be good old water ice.

There are many problems to solve before we get to Mars, and reliable shelters for the first astronauts are a crucial part of the plan.

In the harsh environment of the Red Planet, there will be temperature extremes and cosmic radiation to contend with, not to even mention the need for breathable air.

NASA has been working on its Mars exploration timeline for decades, and right now the goal is to bring the first explorers to the Red Planet in the 2030s. Researchers have been developing various space habitat concepts for this purpose, and NASA has even organised a US$2.5 million competition for 3-D printed habitat ideas.

You might think that Martian concrete or lightweight metal sheets would be the material of choice, but there’s another exciting option that researchers have been investigating—plain old water ice.

Artist concept of the Mars Ice Home.
IMAGE CREDIT: Clouds Architecture Office, NASA Langley Research Center, Space Exploration Architecture

The latest ice habitat concept, designed by researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, was announced just last week. It’s called ‘Mars Ice Home’—an inflatable donut-shaped habitat surrounded by a shell of water ice.

Ice makes a great building material on Mars because of its excellent ability to shield humans from highly damaging cosmic radiation which can increase the risk of cancer later in life. And, even though much of the surface of Mars has no water ice, beneath the surface many areas of the planet contain abundant underground deposits of the resource.

“The materials that make up the Ice Home will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms,” said researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.

An inside view of the donut-shaped torus habitat with its insulation layers.
IMAGE CREDIT: Clouds Architecture Office, NASA Langley Research Center, Space Exploration Architecture 

According to NASA’s statement, an ice-shielded habitat above the ground also eliminates certain drawbacks of an underground habitat, which would have to be dug out by heavy robotic equipment before the crew arrived. Besides, the researchers reckon living above the ground would be more pleasant, too.

“All of the materials we’ve selected are translucent, so some outside daylight can pass through and make it feel like you’re in a home and not a cave,” principal investigator Kevin Kempton said in a press statement.

To provide the future Mars exploration crew with a workspace that doesn’t require a pressure suit, the research team also designed an insulation system that uses another readily available Martian resource, carbon dioxide.

There are some technical limitations to the Ice Home—according to experts, it would take 400 days to fill one of these habitats with water, based on the rate at which water can be extracted from the Martian underground. However, if the rate can be increased, the design of the habitat can be scaled up, too.

This is not the first time ice has been proposed as a building material for future Red Planet inhabitants. The team at Langley collaborated with designers from the Clouds Architecture Office who took out first prize at NASA’s 3-D printed habitat concept competition in 2015. Their winning Ice House design played a key role in Langley’s efforts.

Mars Ice House concept, the winning 2015 design by Cloud AO.
IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/Cloud AO

Header image: Artist rendering of Mars Ice Home. IMAGE CREDIT: Clouds Architecture Office, NASA Langley Research Center, Space Exploration Architecture

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