Astronomy / Science / Technology

Ice-homes could shelter our first Martian pioneers

AN ICY-BLUE DOME STANDS AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF A HARSH, RED LANDSCAPE. This mysterious frosty globe guards a band of pioneers against the unforgiving Martian environment.

This isn’t a sci-fi story, buddy. This is NASA’s ambitious new concept for living on Mars. While working alongside a group of expert architects and designers from industry and academia, an unlikely material for building these chill-pads was proposed — ice.

NASA says this is just one of many potential concepts for surviving the elements on the Red Planet.

“After a day dedicated to identifying needs, goals and constraints we rapidly assessed many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution,” said Langley senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz.

The ‘ice-home’ is described as “a large inflatable torus, a shape similar to an inner tube, that is surrounded by a shell of water ice”. 

The benefits of the ice-home structures

Perhaps most importantly, the homes are lightweight and can be easily deployed and transported with simple robotics, and filled with water before the crew arrives. The domes also incorporate materials extracted from Mars, and the water from the dome could be converted to rocket fuel if need be.


The Ice Home Feasibility team at NASA’s Langley Research Center discuss the past and present technology development efforts in inflatable structures  (IMAGE: Kevin Kempton/NASA)

Water is a hydrogen-rich material, and can be used as a shielding agent against galactic cosmic rays. These harmful rays have the power to pass directly through a human’s skin and damage cells or DNA in a way that can cause cancer in later life, or more immediately, radiation sickness.

Quite conveniently then, is the abundance of water-ice which lies just below the surface in many areas of Mars.

In November of last year a deposit of water beneath the Red Planet’s surface was found to hold as much water as Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes.

The threat of space radiation poses as a continuing problem for potential Martian colonies, and the idea of underground colonies has also been discussed. As a means of fighting off the damaging rays, underground bases have been considered as a viable option in the past, however the heavy machinery involved in preparing these bunkers before Earthlings would be able to venture out would add considerable cost and effort to the mission.

The ice-home concept solves this issue and provides a number of sustainable solutions and perks as a bonus.

Not only that — it also allows the astronauts to live in something that more closely resembles a home, as opposed to a gloomy underground war-bunker.

Additional design considerations

The ice-home concept is thoughtful enough to afford its pioneer home-owners a juicy amount of flexible work-space to service robotic equipment indoors. This would mean they don’t have to wear their itchy, smelly pressure suits while toiling away over their Rover.

A layer of carbon dioxide gas would also be used as a means of insulation between the living space and the layer of ice — conveniently utilising the available carbon dioxide on Mars to manage temperatures inside the ice-home.

After all, the brave pioneers need something to look forward to when they rock up to their new digs.

“After months of travel in space, when you first arrive at Mars and your new home is ready for you to move in, it will be a great day,” Langley Mars Ice Home principal investigator Kevin Kempton said.


A sunset on Mars (IMAGE: NASA)

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