colonization of the Red Planet

PLASMA 5 online article

Humankind has proven to be incredibly adaptable to the most extreme and unusual living conditions imaginable. We are capable of surviving in the most hostile environments like the Atacama Desert in Chile, or the equally harsh ice sheets of North Greenland. Mars, however, poses a different challenge. A planet where the atmospheric pressure is considerably lower, the overall temperature averages at a frigid -55oC, and there’s an ever present threat of colossal dust storms, amongst other things. All of this means we would only be able to exist on this planet by wearing a space suit or within the confines of a human-made habitable zone. The challenge to create such a living space on our solar neighbor has gained a lot of attention from both private and state space companies over the years. As a result, these companies are currently developing concrete, well-thought out plans to successfully colonize the Red Planet, including Mars tailored architecture.

The New York-based design agency ‘AI SpaceFactory’ specializes in designing innovative and efficient architecture to sustain human colonization of the Red Planet.

AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Exterior-Dust Devil
AI. – Tera – Emblem – CopyrightPlomp

Imagine you are about to move to the house next door. Pretty straightforward, right? Except by house you mean planet and by next door you mean at least 57.6 million kilometers away from your current home Earth. You are moving to Mars! And what awaits you in this interplanetary journey makes an economy trans-atlantic flight seem like a breeze. First, you will embark on a flight of about 150 days. You will be at risk of serious radioactive space radiation exposure from the general cosmic background radiation as well as from naturally occurring solar eruptions from our sun. Zero gravity, as cool as it may be does impose a certain level of physiological stress that leads to bone and muscle wasting. In addition to all of this, there are also psychological problems like boredom, anxiety, and feelings of isolation, all of which are exacerbated by the lack of visual connection to Earth and the limited communication to the loved ones we left behind. 

So why even populate Mars? For economic reasons? Tourism? Science? To fulfill our fate as a species? To escape our struggles here on Earth and begin a new life far away from it all?


AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Exterior-Dust Storm

Despite all the difficulties, Mars is by far the best option in the solar system beyond the Moon. Mars has a rock surface and although the water does not flow freely, the fact that it has water sources (albeit in a frozen state below the surface or at the poles) at all is remarkable. Water availability, along with the presence of carbon dioxide in the air opens up our ability to produce compounds required to survive on the Red Planet, such as oxygen for respiration or hydrogen and methane for (rocket) fuel. This also happens to be our closest option for trans-planetary migration. All of this has been factored in towards the latest technological developments geared towards planetary colonization.


AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Exterior-Robotic Ecosystem

Sheer survival aside, think of the inherent and diverse beauty the Martian landscape has to offer! This is not just a planet that happens to satisfy many essential requirements for habitability, it is also a thing of beauty. The planet is home to the tallest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons. What a view! There’s also the Valles Marineris, a planetary ridge so large that it would stretch across the width of the United States, making the grandness of the Grand Canyon questionable. The polar ice caps, craters, caves, lava tubes, dry river valleys, the dunes, and (most importantly) the as of yet unknown natural treasures of this terrain all provide an enticing alien landscape ready to be explored. An almost untouched planet enriched with pristine sites our eyes can hardly imagine. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all the sites Mars has to offer might be its night sky. Once the sun has set in hues of blue, a bright universe opens up. Billions of stars for our eyes to feast on, all visible due to the lack of light pollution and thin atmosphere, and amongst them a light blue dot – Earth. A more poetic scene that speaks to our true humanity and cosmic sense of place is hard to fathom. This alone begs the question, if this is not reason enough to go, then what is?


AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Interior-Light Stairs

One of the companies that wants to build a second home for humanity is the New York architectural firm AI SpaceFactory. The company was founded in 2017 by David Malott and aims to create life sustaining architecture for long-term missions to Mars and in turn, revolutionize the world of architecture here on Earth. A team of architects, artists and engineers working and brainstorming towards the development of this highly applied technology – SpaceFactory sees the spaces and surfaces of architecture as vehicles to connect people and places.

“It’s a journey that leads us beyond planet Earth, working with NASA to develop the first permanent buildings for Mars.”

AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Interior-Nighttime Task

Winner of NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, AI SpaceFactory has the potential to revolutionize the construction industry – in space and on Earth. Their Mars habitat MARSHA, awarded by the ‘Multi-Planetary Architectural and Technology Design Agency’ as the overall winner of the long-standing competition series in which 60 other challengers participated. The MARSHA habitat provides an insight into the future of human life on Mars. The space is designed to hold an astronaut crew of four members. The 3D printed prototype is 4.5 meter high and contains three robotic windows. The simulations are reminiscent of a modern version of science fiction motifs from the 60s.
MARSHA is built from an AI SpaceFactory formulated material called “Mars polymer”, which is made from matter that exists on the planet. It is composed of a novel blend of basaltic fiber from Martian rock and renewable bioplastic from plants that could potentially grow on Mars. Moreover, the vertical shape and the human-oriented design mark a radical departure from earlier Martian designs, such as the well-known glass dome.

The terrestrial counterpart of this building form is TERA, a futuristic Earth based home that also provides insight into our future life on Mars. It is made from recycled, biodegradable materials that can be re-composted into the soil at the end of their life cycle. TERA will be available as early as September 2019 for anyone wishing to invest in such a habitat.


AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Interior-Day At The Office

With all of this in mind, AI SpaceFactory is not just testing innovative technology, but also sending a message to the construction sector. Building with concrete may prove successful, but we are in a new era. Concrete is the second most consumed resource in the world after water – and only 20% of it is ever recycled. Production is a very energy intensive process and contributes almost 5% to global carbon emissions. Estimates state that about 10 billion tonnes of concrete are produced annually. This amount of concrete, stacked in meter sized cubes on top of each other, would reach five times to the Moon and back. 

Today, there are approximately 1.6 billion people in the world living in inadequate housing. Urbanization is changing the surface of the planet and there is no sign that this trend is slowing down. Every day, 200,000 people move to the cities. According to AI SpaceFactory, high-cost resources can be replaced with more cost-effective ones that increase building sustainability and that are also applicable in an interplanetary context.

In the distant future, people on Mars will see themselves less as astronauts and more as settlers. The aim is to change the planet’s atmosphere so as to make the surface temperature warmer and the air breathable. It should be noted that many scientists who have simulated the evolution of Mars believe that the planet once had flowing streams, lakes, and an ocean, as well as a humid atmosphere that could have possibly hosted favorable conditions for life.


AI-SpaceFactory-Mars-Habitat-Exterior-Distant View

Most supplies would initially have to come from Earth, but in the second phase, the population size would rise to a point (a few thousand people) where they would be able to efficiently mine the planet’s resources. For example, the planet’s characteristic red colour is due to the presence of iron oxide in the sand, so settlers could use this to produce iron and steel for construction. Electricity could be obtained from large solar collectors. The carbon dioxide rich atmosphere could be used to cultivate plants. And so on. The more settlement, the more self-sufficient and sustainable the population will be. This step, however, is the hardest of them all because the colony would ultimately need to find a way to slowly warm the atmosphere so that liquid water could flow freely on the Red Planet for the first time in 3 billion years. This would eventually enable agriculture and cities. At this point, we would be entering the third stage of colonization and witnessing the dawn of a new civilization, one that could thrive on Mars.
Inevitably, with the colonization of a second planet, we can gain a completely new view of Earth. But first we have to answer important questions: Who gives mankind the right to conquer untouched worlds? Can we (AI SpaceFactory) be a space company that harmonizes technological advancements with nature on Earth? What have we learned from the consequences of our past colonization events on our home planet?

In order to find satisfactory answers to all of these questions, let us be actively and positively involved with innovative ideas. Let’s challenge our minds for the technical obstacles that lie ahead, but also ensure the preservation of our species in order to best colonize other planets in the future. Always with a sustainable and responsible mindset.



full article published in PLASMA magazine 5

PLASMA 5 / picture by Nora Heinisch