What could a large space colony on Mars actually look like?

29 August 2018 Consulting.ca 3 min. read

In a project for the Marstopia design competition for Eleven Magazine, a team from design and engineering consultancy Stantec outlined a Mars colony utilizing local resources to make the planet’s harsh environment habitable for a large-scale metropolis.

Vernacular architecture is based on local needs and locally available materials – like, for example, adobe huts, thatched roof cottages, log cabins, and igloos. These ‘traditional buildings’ respond to the pressures of the local climate while using materials easily available in the environment. They are quite opposite to, say, the fanciful constructions of Frank Gehry and, really, most any ‘architected’ architecture.

When we think of space colonies on Mars or some other alien surface, we often picture white domes or some such simple pre-fabricated and transported structure mounted on the blasted and barren surface of less-habitable planets. But what if we were to instead construct a large, scalable, metropolis on Mars using vernacular architecture? What would a functional and local resource-shaped Mars colony look like? 

A team from Stantec – including co-op student Marcel Tarngorski, designer Alyssa Haas, and innovative tech development lead Aubrey Tucker – did just that, designing a Martian vernacular space colony as their submission to the Marstopia design competition.A tunnel colony on MarsBased on the premise that it would be too expensive to ship in a pre-fab large-scale colony, the team worked on conquering the inhospitable climate – including high radiation, low temperatures, and low atmospheric pressure – with the assistance of the local environment and materials.

Basically, the team decided to burrow into the terra firma to create an underground tunnel colony that could be more easily pressurized than a standalone structure. “The tunnel provides us with a structure that can be made airtight and habitable,” says the Stantec team. “Pressurize the interior, provide oxygen, keep it thermally regulated and shielded from radiation, and the tunnel becomes an ideal setting for an underground city.”

Meanwhile, the team would use Martian rock and sulphur to create concrete to form the buildings inside the tunnel colony. The tunnel excavation would be performed by drones, while the buildings would also be 3D printed by drones.

With gravity only being a third of that on Earth, the Martian subsurface could support a stable super span like Stantec’s 314 meter-across tunnel. There are also no seismic issues to deal with on Mars, meaning they can dig a very big tunnel, extending it far enough to eventually fit a million settlers, if needed.Solving Martian problems with Martian resourcesEnvironmental control takes place at the boundaries of the tunnel, and at any penetrations through it, meaning that designers can make the buildings looks like whatever they want since they don’t have to worry about pressure control requirements. As well, the tunnel’s large pressurized and temperature-controlled cross-section means that crops can be grown and tended by drones within.

To make the colony feel less oppressive, the designers bored plenty of (pressure-sealed, of course) skylights through the tunnel to help colonists experience a real day-night cycle. The colony also incorporates a central river – which is pumped back to the start in an aquaponic loop – derived from Martian ice, serving as an irrigation source and a fish habitat.

In terms of the colonization process, the Stantec team envisions it proceeding in a number of steps. First, in situ resource utilization systems are landed to convert carbon dioxide to methane fuel and to create oxygen from electrolysis of Martian water. Then excavation drones start digging the tunnel while other drones refine sulfur to use in concrete. Then, drones are sent to test the interior of the tunnel and seal and pressurize it.

Next, a small human crew settles in the tunnel and starts planting, while drones 3D print structures in airtight parts of the tunnel. Once the main tunnel is sealed and built up as required, it can be settled. Meanwhile, excavation drones can dig out new areas for expansion if needed.