Swarming Robots & 3D Printed Habitats Will Play A Key Role In An Underground City On Mars (Engineering)

It is already known by images obtained from Hubble telescope and earth based observatories that universe has trillions of planets. This understanding triggers ideas that human can inhabit them in future, starting by closest ones and moving to farther planets. This can happen as science and technology advances and human evolves based on new environments and condition in other planets. These are facts that cannot be ignored, and considering it along with the other probabilities necessitates a conclusion. The conclusion can be if human race be in danger on earth due to unpredictable natural and man-made disasters in future, inhabiting other planets by human is essential.

Many space organizations have proposed plans for a human mission to Mars, the first step towards any colonization effort. However, the surface is not hospitable to humans or most known life forms due to the radiation, greatly reduced air pressure, and an atmosphere with only 0.16% oxygen. Human survival on Mars would require living in underground Mars habitats with complex life-support systems. Building such habitats presents a plethora of challenges, like a requirement of regolith layer of several meters thick to protect astronauts from radiation, building envelope must bear thermal stresses etc.

Now, a team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology (TUD) is working on a method, which will use swarming robots, in order to excavate material and 3D printing, for producing underground habitats.

“We developed this idea for the competition Open Space Innovation Campaign ‘Off-Earth Manufacturing and Construction’, which was put forth by European Space Agency and also tested it, in a case study, which involve the development of a 1m x 1m scale prototype as a proof of concept for habitat envelope components that facilitate cultivation of plants.”

— told Dr. Henriette Bier, Associate Professor of Robotic Building, TU Delft and lead author of the study.

Their proposed approach focuses on the robotic building, 3D printing and powering the habitat and robots. The first step is to implement excavation with a rover in a controlled downwards spiral movement. Then, excavated regolith is mixed with cement to create concrete. Finally, this concrete is used to 3D print a stable habitat.

Section through underground structure (right) and its structural analysis with a fragment chosen for further development (left) © Bier et al.

It is important to consider the structure of the habitat, before 3D printing any shape. Because, though we can produce cement on mars but, the infrastructure needed for producing it, may or may not be available there. So, we have to consider a structure which will not only provide good insulation from the radiation and micrometeorite impacts, but also, it must require less material and printing time. One such structure suggested by Dr. Bier and her team is structurally optimized porous structure.

In addition, the most immediate threat to human health on Mars is the low pressure of the planet’s atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Dr. Bier and her team also provided a solution to this. They proposed an inflatable structure, which regulates the indoor pressurized environment. This structure is placed in the 3D printed cavity and is made of materials (such as neoprene, vectran, kevlar, etc.) which can also be reproduced on Mars through in situ research utilisation (ISRU).

Structure based on stress lines analysis (left), structural mesh with acoustic optimization pattern (middle), and exploded axonometric view showing excavated layer, 3D © Bier et al.

Finally, the habitat, the robots and the production systems like life support, energy generation etc. are powered by the combined solar and wind power.

All this point towards the fact that, swarming robots and 3D printed habitat will play a key role in an underground city on Mars.

Featured image: Underground Martian habitat (left) implemented with D2RP&O methods (bottom right), using rovers (middle right), and relying on renewable energy generation (top right). © Bier et al.

For more: H. Bier, H. Vermeer , A. Hidding and K. Jani, “Design-to-Robotic-Production of Underground Habitats on Mars”, Arxiv, pp.1-8, 2021. https://arxiv.org/abs/2105.02619

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