NASA researchers have a lot of problems to work through if they want astronauts to one day set foot on Mars. One of the biggest hurdles is where these early pioneers will sleep and live, and after a day of brainstorming, engineers might have come up with a solution – a conceptual 'ice home' design.
Yup, NASA is looking into creating inflatable domes covered in ice for astronauts to live and work in, providing them with protection from extreme temperatures and high-energy radiation.
"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 senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz, from NASA's Langley Research Centre in Virginia.
So what exactly is an 'Ice Home' anyway? Well, though the name invokes images of igloos, and that mental image isn't all that far off, the concept NASA's working out – officially called Mars Ice Home – is an inflatable, inner-tube-like device that, when inflated fully, is covered with a thick sheet of protective ice. It looks like this:
"The Mars Ice Home design has several advantages that make it an appealing concept. It is lightweight and can be transported and deployed with simple robotics, then filled with water before the crew arrives," the team says.
"It incorporates materials extracted from Mars, and because water in the Ice Home could potentially be converted to rocket fuel for the Mars Ascent Vehicle, the structure itself doubles as a storage tank that can be refilled for the next crew."
The major goal of the Ice Home concept is to protect astronauts from high-energy radiation, such as cosmic rays, that can penetrate the Martian atmosphere. These rays can damage cells, raising the risk of a slew of health concerns such as cancer and acute radiation sickness.
As it turns out, since ice is hydrogen-rich it acts as a shield against these rays, making it a great cover for preventing the rays from smacking into the astronauts. This is best understood with the illustration below, in which you can see how thick the ice will be around the top of the dome, providing the required protection.
"The materials that make up the Ice Home will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms – although not as fierce as in the movie The Martian," explains researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault, also from the Langley Research Centre.
Besides offering protection from the harsh environmental realities of Mars, the Ice Home would be super light compared to other settlement ideas that involve constructing buildings here on Earth before shooting them off to the Red Planet.
One of the best ways for humans to survive on Mars, the team says, is to burrow underground, which offers the best protection from all of the harmful things on the surface.
To do that, though, some sort of shelter will need to be waiting for the astronauts once they get there, and the team thinks the ice dome – with its lightweight frame, easy construction, and ability to use water materials that are already on the planet – might be the perfect solution.
"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," explains team member Kevin Kempton.
Without the inflatable habitat, which the team says can inflate and cover itself with ice extracted from the Martian landscape in about 400 Earth days, researchers would have to likely find a way to get heavy drilling and digging machines on Mars to create underground shelters before astronauts got there, a concept that would be far too complicated and cost way too much money.
While it's important to remember that the Ice Home is still in its conceptual stage, it's looking like a promising solution to the all of the various troubles that come along with living on Mars, and it very well might be the first thing future pioneers see when they get off that spacecraft after months of intense space travel.