Contestants in a recent Mars design challenge are creating 3D CAD models that depict buildings and vehicles that would allow humans to colonize the red planet.
Jean Thilmany, Senior Editor
Sometime in the not too distant future, one million humans will live in the Mars Valley located on the planet Mars. Okay, that’s far from a certainty. But a currently running contest asks participants to imagine the possibility and to create 3D CAD models as part of their plans for that scenario.
If humans do one day colonize Mars Valley they’ll probably have a thing or two to learn from contestants in the HP Mars Home Planet challenge in which engineers, architects, and others design a Mars habitat that could protect one million future human residents as they live, work and travel the planet.
Participants in the challenge, which kicked off in August, design and visualize the possibilities for this future civilization. The contest is now running on Launch Forth, a product design platform that regularly hosts around 180,000 designers, engineers, and architects. Users collaborate on ideas, solve problems and create solutions for challenges held on the open-access platform.
The first phase of the Mars Home Planet challenge saw nearly 500 entries worked on by more than 34,000 participants who submitted conceptual designs for buildings, vehicles, smart cities, and transportation systems that could support one million humans in the Mars Valley, says Elle Shelley, executive vice president of Launch Forth, headquartered in San Francisco.
Many entries included the use of 3D printing to “print” transportation and buildings on Mars from material both already available on the planet and transported from Earth.
That first phase closed in October, with nine winners announced at Autodesk World 2017, held in Las Vegas in November. The winners were chosen by Launch Forth voters as well as by nine judges prominent in related industries.
In the next phase, entrants will use CAD software to model aspects of vehicles, buildings, and transport systems. That phase closes in this month. In a third phase, entrants will create virtual-reality renderings of their creations, bringing the buildings and systems to life in an immersive, 3D environment for an audience interested in a virtual walkabout in a potential Mars habitat, Shelley says.
The virtual reality environment surrounding the winner’s creation will be built on Mars Valley terrain from a video game called Mars 2030, which uses NASA imagery, she adds.
Each phase doesn’t lead on from the previous one; rather, each has its own deadline and prizes, with the first phase winners received $38,080 in total prizes, Shelley says.
The project’s corporate sponsors are: HP, NVIDIA and Launch Forth, Autodesk, Epic Unreal Engine, Fusion, HTC Vive, Microsoft and Technicolor SA.
A model Martian transporter
Architect Kenny Levick was well versed in construction issues on Mars before he and project partner Dominic Forlini submitted their Mars Home Planet infrastructure titled Mars Genesis and Mawrth-Integra Fleet.
The project was one of the nine first-phase finalists.
Levick did his master’s thesis at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, on colonizing the asteroid belt. That’s where he began to develop his own approach to space habitats, he says.
For the Mars Home Planet challenge, Levick and Forlini proposed a fleet of semi-autonomous vehicles that actually construct the needed roads and other transportation infrastructure as they move forward. The infrastructure is necessary to ferry humans, supplies, and raw materials throughout the planet’s Mawrth Vallis region, Levick says.
“A connected Mawrth Vallis is the foundation for human expansion across Mars, which is our goal,” Levick says.
The two are now working to model phase two of their project in three dimensions in AutoCAD from Autodesk. They may go on to create a virtual-reality version of parts of their transport system, though, as Forlini says, “VR rendering isn’t our strong suite.”
Levick is currently a visiting architecture and interior design professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and an architectural consultant. Forlini is a geologist who works at Cascade Environmental LLC performing groundwater remediation.
“Early settlement colony-to-colony and urban transport networks will stem from the service which the Mawrth-Integra fleet provides,” they stated in their proposal. “As Martian labor forces continue to arrive, ease of transportation allows for allocation of human resources, food and energy.
“The fleet is needed to develop inhabited colonies in close proximity to valuable areas within the region, such as mining, permafrost and climate proxies and for urban expansion,” they wrote.
Levick and Forlini proposed two types of transportation vehicles: a semi-autonomous road paver to construct the roads, a methane-powered propulsion craft for movement on Mars and to parts of the asteroid belt.
The pair had previously worked together on the September 2015 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, a NASA contest that focused on how to build structures on Mars using only the soil available on the planet.
For that competition, Forlini analyzed the soil samples provided by NASA to determine the minerals stored within and how best to extract them. From there, they came up with the Mars Genesis Hab, a habitat that used Martian dirt to 3D print—by means of laying down layers of soil–a physical barricade around an inflatable bladder delivered from Earth.
Once unpacked, the bladder would pressurize and be hooked to all critical life support systems and it could slowly 3D print other aspects, such as habitat, into the landscape. The printed barricade would surround the inhabited area.
For his Miami University master’s project, Levick focused on Ceres, a small dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. That’s when he began to realize the economic value of focusing on the asteroid belt. If infrastructure could be established in the asteroid belt, humans could extract water from asteroids and use it to make rocket fuel.
“If we have water, we can support life and refuel ships, creating essentially an interplanetary gas station for future travel,” Levick says.
And that gas station could be located on Mars.
“Mars has been in conversation for a while now,” Levick says. “It’s like a second space race, and it’s interesting and exciting to try and play a small part in that.”
Forlini and Levick are now developing a 3D model for the second phase of the HP Mars Home Planet Challenge. They’ve code-named that project Flower, Florini says.
“In the first phase we laid out the fleet and outlined how early settlers would initially form and exist within a Mars-based habitat,” Florini says. “We were setting up shop and getting water and oxygen resources there and setting up survival systems.”
Flower will be an airport, refueling station, and transportation hub at the center of the habitable Mars regions. The hub is roughly analogous to an airport or gas station here on Earth–where the crafts can be housed, launched from, and refueled, Forlini says.
They’re creating CAD models of the main aspects of the hub—modeling the entire system would be a huge undertaking, outside the realm of the contest, Forlini says. But the two are particularly keen to model specific parts of the rockets that can be launched from the hub.
“We want people to be able to see what they look like inside and see the control panels,” Forlini says.
“We’ll model as much as we can and submit it to the contest from there,” he says. “We’re always adding new things and refining what we have.”
They’ve called in help; a few of Levick’s friends with strong AutoCAD modeling experience.
For the third stage of the contest, Forlini and Levick will bring in more friends who can help them render a virtual reality model of their refueling station and airport hub.
Third-phase entrants will bring their winning 3D models in the Epic Unreal Engine game engine. The environment will be built on Mars Valley terrain from the Mars 2030 game from Fusion, which itself is based on NASA Mars research and high resolution photography, according to Shelley.
That way, the refueling station will look as though it’s actually situated on Martian terrain.
Beyond the contest, Forlini says, he and Levick will continue to work on their Martian concept “tying our project into a whole planetary timeline.
“We have everything flowing with this timeline, so you can extract resources from Mars to create fuel using methane as a propulsion system to get oxygen and water from the airport out into the region,” Forlini says. “We have systems for rare earth and water extraction, to extend the ability for life, with nothing required to be transported from Earth.”
“Our goal is to become earth independent and be self sustaining to explore the minor galactic region around Mars,” he adds.
Roman Domes 3D printed
Jose Daniel Garcia Espinel was the only winner onsite at Autodesk World when the winning first-phase Mars Home Planet proposals were announced in November.
His team anticipates a city on Mars named Martropolis located within the Mars Valley crater and built using 3D printing with materials harvested directly from the Martian soil.
Espinel is a civil engineer working as director of digital innovation at the Spanish renewable energy and construction company Acciona.
The biggest challenge the as-yet-dreamed-of Martropolis faces is, of course, the planet’s environment.
“The atmosphere is too aggressive; full of dust storms,” Espinel says. “The climate is too cold and the pressure is quite low. Also, water is needed for life and local minerals must be used as raw materials to build the first Martian structures.”
The solution: a system of tunnels, or tubes, that connect domes where humans will live.
He plans to use common construction machinery–robotic bulldozers, excavators, compactors, trucks and water vehicles.
“These machines could be self-driving or be remotely controlled from a space base,” Espinel states in his proposal.
To construct the system, Espinel has taken a page from the 3D printing process. The machines will use a pressurized system—analogous to how the 3D printer operates–to layer minerals previously mined from the Mars soil. The layers will compress, forming a type of concrete, he states in his proposal.
But how to create the internal living and transport space within? Steel beams are far too heavy to be transported to Mars from Earth, no matter the payload future rockets could handle, Espinel says.
So he and his team members took inspiration from ancient Romans building methods: compression.
“Compression working structures done of mass concrete is a technique well known in architectural history. Romans were the first humans that used this technology to build domes,” Espinel states in his project proposal.
Martropolis structures will be created in the same way, with humans living within domes specially pressurized and oxygenated to mimic the Earth’s pressure and atmosphere, he says.
While Mars colonization is, of course, a long ways away, several companies are already looking into the prospect, Forlini says.
Meanwhile, it’s challenging and exciting to consider the prospect through creation of their transportation hub and vehicles, Levick adds. “Whether or not this will ever be used on actual Mars, who knows?” he says. “I feel like with Dom’s research and my architectural direction, together we have a good chance at really making some noise in the Mars design community.”
CAD modeling and virtual reality rendering also have a place in that quick-growing design community that may be behind the buildings and roads our descendants travel over as part of their daily Martian routine.