NASA needs our help building on Mars

The agency is challenging the public to figure out how to use Martian soil and rock to build on the planet.

Reuters/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin, in this photograph taken January 14, 2011 and released by NASA March 9, 2011. Scientists recently found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months.

NASA needs help exploring Mars, and it’s asking the public to pitch in. On Wednesday the agency challenged professional and budding engineers to come up with ideas on how to use native Martian soil and rock to build things like roads, bridges, landing pads, and radiation shields, structures that are necessary to human exploration of the Red Planet.

“It’s all about saving weight,” explains Kevin Stark, vice president of NineSigma, a technology consultancy that’s helping NASA run the challenge.

To transport materials like steel from Earth to Mars, says NASA, is inefficient. For every 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of Martian soil used for building these structures, NASA could save $110,000 in fuel and spacecraft costs needed to deliver earthly materials to the Red Planet.

“If we end up on Mars, we’re going be mining, digging, and doing a lot there,” says Dr. Stark. “There’s material there. What can we use it for and how can we use it?” he asks.

Though astronomers don’t know a lot about the entire landscape of the planet, they do know there’s basalt there, a black, volcanic rock; and regolith, a layer of loose materials like dust soil and rock.

NASA will split $15,000 among three prize winners who come up with the most innovative way to use these as building materials by sintering, melting, or binding them with other agents, according to the challenge announcement. Someone could consider extracting the metals from the regolith, NASA suggests. The winning design principles could also be used for building on the Moon and even on remote islands here on Earth.

Luckily for prize challengers who want to see what Martian basalt and regolith might look like, NASA points out that similar materials actually can be found on Earth, in Black Point, Ariz. and Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This could be helpful, as Stark pointed out, since “obviously you can’t order moon dirt.”

Contenders shouldn’t be bound by any restrictions in their designs, says Stark, such as the planet’s thin atmosphere or short supply of carbon.

“There might be some crazy, out of left field idea that’s actually the most innovative thing out there,” he says.

This isn’t the first time NASA has crowdsourced feats of engineering from the public to help meet its goal of getting humans to Mars in the 2030s. As Quartz points out, the agency recently gave $200,000 to Clemson University to turn astronaut urine into vitamins and plastics.

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