BUILDING A HOME
Welcome to the space village
Humans are fragile beasts whose sensitive biology needs a lot of protecting. This is particularly true away from the protective cocoon of our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field. So if we’re to set up shop elsewhere, we’re going to need to fashion ourselves some decent accommodation. Shipping a construction kit from Earth is prohibitively expensive, so the buzz acronym right now is ISRU – In Situ Resource Utilisation. Which is a fancy way of saying: “use what’s already there”.
Plans are already underway. In July this year, NASA announced the five winners of its $100,000 ‘3D-Printed Habitat Challenge’ to design a dwelling that would enable people to live and work on Mars, and which could be built using local materials and 3D-printing technology. First place was awarded to Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas, who designed an uncrewed, robotic printer that would land on the Martian surface and deploy rovers to gather local materials. The European Space Agency is also currently working out how to 3D-print building blocks for future space habitats using lunar soil.
Putting up a habitat is a good start, but looking longer-term we might want to ‘terraform’ our new home and make it more Earth-like. This wholesale makeover means fundamentally altering the atmosphere and temperature to create an environment that’s more amenable to liquid water and life. A study published in June found that an ancient group of microbes called ‘cyanobacteria’ can photosynthesise in extremely low-light conditions, a boon that could one day see them deployed in sheltered areas on toxic planets to take in carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen. Mars is one possible candidate, although another recent study suggests that the Red Planet might not have enough carbon dioxide to do the job.
Fashioning a house is not the same as making a home. For any colony to be successful, its inhabitants have to function as members of a fledgling society. That’s just as much about the people as it is bricks and mortar. The first settlers will need to draw up a legal system to maintain law and order, perhaps based on our current laws here on Earth. Jobs will need to be created and assigned to those with suitable skills, and institutions will have to be set up quickly to provide medical, educational and economic services. Ideally, this will all be planned before the spacegoers have left Earth, as there’ll be enough to think about on our new home without having to create a functioning society on the hoof!
“THE EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY IS CURRENTLY WORKING OUT HOW TO 3D-PRINT BUILDING BLOCKS FOR FUTURE SPACE HABITATS USING LUNAR SOIL”