Phase two of NASA’s deep space habitat challenge finds a winner in architect & tech firm collaboration

As part of its support for the application 3D printing technology to deep space exploration, NASA has awarded a $250,000 prize to a joint team consisting of members from Foster+Partners California and Branch Technology (based in Chattanooga, Tennessee).

NASA’s competition, which has now reached level three of its second phase, aims to “advance construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond”, most notably with the aim of accommodating astronauts on Mars and building human colonies in outer space.

The winning team from Foster+Partners California & Branch Chattanooga
The winning team from Foster+Partners California & Branch Chattanooga

The Competition

The five competing teams had to develop their own materials and construct their own 3D printers. To test the materials fairly, competitors were then required to print “structural members” such as beams, cylinders, and domes, which were then analysed, compressed, and crush-tested to destruction. The 3D printable materials must be readily available on a Mars mission and recyclable.

The design proposed by Foster+Partners and Branch Technology built upon a shortlisted submission for the first phase of the competition that consisted of a 3D printed habitat constructed by semi-autonomous robots in 2015. It was later refined into a basic cylinder design entered into the second phase of the competition. It was made of thermoplastics consisting of 30% recycled mission materials and 70% Martian regolith oil, and was able to withstand a maximum compressive load of over 28,000 kg.

The dome design undergoes testing
The dome design undergoes testing

A team from Pennsylvania State University of University Park, who had failed to produce a structurally sound cylinder in the previous level of the competition, this time received the remaining reward of $150,000 for second place.

To infinity and beyond

Phase three of the competition, the “On-site habitat” challenge will test how the 3D printers can autonomously create a physical habitat.

NASA runs a number of additional Centennial challenges to encourage innovation, including ones for small satellites (“Cube Quest”), “Space Robotics” and “Vascular Tissue”. NASA’s main competition comes from the European Space Agency, who are also currently running Mars habitat projects.

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Featured image shows Foster + Partners 2 prize-winning design for a 3D printed habitat on Mars in Phase 1 of the Centennial Challenge. Image via “Team GAMMA” Foster + Partners/Astrobotic