Engineering advancements from private enterprise and scientific exploration by public entities like NASA have made life on Mars a matter of when, not if. Several successful robotic missions to Mars have shown getting there is the easy part. New technology is helping researchers understand the challenge better than ever before. To build a habitable Martian settlement, science, engineering, construction, and yes, even PropTech will need to work together to overcome the challenges of Mars’ extreme environment.
Mars may be humanity’s best hope for a second home of the options available in our solar system, but the Red Planet is not particularly welcoming. Mars has a few important features that make it hospitable, like a thick enough atmosphere to protect people planetside from harmful solar radiation. Also, a similar axial tilt to Earth’s gives Mars day lengths about 35 minutes longer than Earth’s, syncing the planet well with the natural rhythms of daily human life. Gravity on Mars is lower than Earth’s, giving humans a slight advantage.
That’s where Mars’ hospitality ends. While the planet does have some atmosphere, it is inadequate at insulating the planet, causing extreme swings in temperature, increased solar radiation, and requires high force to pressurize habitats.
Life on Mars is a problem of scale. A short stay on Mars doesn’t require large amounts of radiation shielding, an extended stay requires a thick layer of protection. NASA and other entities are busy building temporary habitats. But the goal of going to Mars is to eventually settle there so we’ll focus on what it will take to build something permanent. To replicate conditions of a permanent habitat on Mars a company called Cove.tool uses its analytics to model energy usage via a hypothetical digital twin. Using the latest ASHRAE energy standards to examine human comfort metrics like heating, cooling, lighting, daylighting, and glare the team found each inhabitant of Mars uses about 73,000 BTUs per square foot per year. That is roughly double what someone would use in a typically North American office building.
This energy could come from solar panels but to overcome the challenges of collecting solar energy on Mars, panels would need to be about 3.5 times larger to support power needs. That means the solar energy that has powered several robotic probes exploring Mars is unlikely to be feasible for permanent habitation. Solar power suffers the same problems on Earth, it’s intermittent. Making matters worse, Mars has global dust storms that can block out the sun for weeks, requiring immense amounts of energy storage capacity. Heavy battery systems would be unfeasible for the 9-month journey from Earth.
NASA favors nuclear power on Mars. Not only is nuclear power steady, but it’s also lighter. A 2016 NASA study found that about 18,000 kg of solar power generation equipment would be needed to match the output of a 9000 kg fission system. If the power does fail on a nuclear system passive heat from the reactor could be used to warm the habitat. NASA has already developed the technology, using radioisotope thermoelectric generators to power the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft and recent Mars rovers.
With a source of energy, serious construction work can begin. Where does the material come from? Ex-situ materials are everything we bring with us. In-situ materials are making use of what is already on Mars. NASA has displayed some dazzling ex-situ habitats, some involving converting the spacecraft itself into a permanent structure. Designing something for the gravity of space-flight and planetside gravity at the same time makes things much more difficult. Because of weight concerns for landing and takeoff, most researchers argue any long-term habitat on Mars will need to be made primarily of in-situ material. Several NASA design competitions have shown the viability of 3D printed materials, using water found on Mars to build ice shields to protect against radiation. NASA has also awarded design competitions to projects that use ground-up Martian rock and dirt to form a plastic-like substance that 3D printers can use to build egg-shaped domiciles.
Subterranean habitats are also a popular line of thinking. A team of digging robots could be sent ahead of time to excavate, perhaps even repurposing a dormant lava tube. A space station may be the first step, providing a base of operations from which to launch missions and receive material from Earth. Different construction methods for permanent habitation can be tested and safely monitored from orbit before committing resources for full-on construction.
One day we might even see settlements emerge on Mars. While you might be getting excited about pioneering commercial development on another planet or being the first broker to sign an office lease on Mars, I’m here to tell you under the current legal framework, that’s not possible. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says all extraterrestrial real estate “belongs to all mankind.” Depending on how the treaty is interpreted, you may own every resource you brought with you, not the land underneath. It’s easy to see property laws regarding settlements on planetary bodies rapidly evolve once the process begins in earnest. For now, any entrepreneurial endeavor in space is on shaky legal ground. There’s no way to answer legal questions until someone does it.
Building materials and energy are two factors in an array of challenges to sustain life on Mars. There are many more. Developing technology around oxygen, food, water, and health care will be needed for habitation. But all that has to take place somewhere. Eventually, buildings will be just as important on Mars as they are on Earth. The technology being developed in our office buildings like air quality sensors, AI-driven building management systems, automated access control, digital twins, and more are pioneering the technologies that will eventually make Mars habitable. One day, with enough perseverance and technological advancement, we will be talking about Martian building systems.