BUILD­ING A HOME

Welcome to the space vil­lage

Focus-Science and Technology - - LEAVING EARTH -

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”

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