by Jerry ElengicalDec 12, 2021
In an effort to push the boundaries of humanity’s exploration of the solar system, Bjarke Ingels Group and ICON have announced Mars Dune Alpha - a 3D-printed habitat tailor-made for the red planet. The endeavour follows a previous collaboration between BIG, ICON, and SEArch+ on habitat design for the lunar surface - dubbed Project Olympus. In a similar vein, Mars Dune Alpha was conceived as part of NASA’s CHAPEA (Crew Health Performance Exploration Analog) mission simulations, which will attempt to ascertain how astronauts are affected by extended stays on the surface of Mars.
Planned as a series of three mission simulations, each lasting one year, at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, USA, the CHAPEA program is expected to offer invaluable insight into behavioural and physical health, space food systems, as well as the risks and resource management scenarios involved in manned missions to Mars. The participating crews will have to conduct simulated spacewalks and deal with the fallout of communication delays or equipment failures as part of the program. Additionally, BIG and ICON’s collaboration addresses one of the most glaring challenges faced by a mission to establish a Martian colony - the prohibitive cost of transporting vast quantities of building materials over millions of kilometres. Hence, one of the CHAPEA program’s core directives is to evaluate combinations of 3D-printing and additive construction technology that can lighten cargo loads and streamline habitat assembly on extraterrestrial worlds.
Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director of BIG, mentions in an official statement, “Together with NASA and ICON, we are investigating what humanity’s home on another planet will entail from the human experience. The data gained from this habitat research will directly inform NASA’s standards for long-duration exploration missions, and potentially lay the foundation for a new Martian vernacular.”
ICON’s next-generation Vulcan robotic printing system will fabricate Mars Dune Alpha’s structure from Lavacrete, the company’s proprietary Portland Cement mix. The module will cover an area of 1,700 sq ft at the Johnson Space Center and is among the earliest realised prototypes for architecture on Mars. Its purpose during the course of the program is to act as a home for participants, simulating the actual experience of living and working in a Martian surface habitat. The module’s sinuous arcing shell form hosts an interior layout that has been structured along a ‘gradient of privacy’. Common living spaces occupy the centre of the habitat, with four private quarters for the crew at one end. The opposite extremity of the structure contains food-production spaces, medical stations, and dedicated workstations. Varying ceiling heights created by the curved shell reduce the monotony of extended periods spent indoors, alongside a combination of fixed and movable furniture which impart flexibility to the interior design. Furthermore, temperature control, lighting customisation, and sound control aid in maintaining the crew’s well-being and stabilising circadian rhythms through environmental regulation.
Based in Texas, ICON initially rose to prominence by developing the first 3D-printed home in the United States. The company has since moved forward with a goal to revolutionise homebuilding and construction through the integration of technology - now foraying into the realm of space architecture. Co-founder and CEO of ICON, Jason Ballard, elaborates on the project in an official release, stating: “This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans. Mars Dune Alpha is intended to serve a very specific purpose - to prepare humans to live on another planet.” He continues, “We wanted to develop the most faithful analogue possible to aid in humanity's dream to expand into the stars. 3D-printing the habitat has further illustrated to us that construction-scale 3D-printing is an essential part of humanity's toolkit on Earth.”
Denmark-based BIG had previously explored the possibilities of architecture on the red planet through projects such as the planned Mars Science City in Dubai. Of late, it is no surprise that interest in colonising Mars - one of our nearest planetary neighbours, has been rapidly mounting, particularly in the wake of proposals such as ABIBOO Studio and SONet’s Nüwa City and comments by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk about the need for humans to inhabit other worlds in order to ensure our collective survival.
Perhaps this may be one way to address the issues of climate change, overpopulation, and resource depletion that the modern world is burdened with. In any case, the prospect of Martian settlements is looming ever closer on the horizon, with designers and scientists working in close conjunction to make this dream - once purely the subject of science fiction - into a reality. While Mars Dune Alpha is only the first small step in preparations to settle on other worlds within the solar system, in the long run, the insight it generates may serve as a much bigger leap for mankind than initially anticipated.