The first pioneers on Mars may build their homes using the ice beneath their feet.
In November, a University of Texas research team reported that Mars' Utopia Planitia region contains about as much water, in the form of buried ice, as Lake Superior does here on Earth.
This ice layer, which spans a greater area than the state of New Mexico, lies in Mars' mid-northern latitudes and is covered by just 3 feet to 33 feet (1 to 10 meters) of soil, the scientists determined. [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars]
The presence of accessible ice on the Red Planet warms the heart of a collaborative group at the NASA Langley Engineering Design Studio in Hampton, Virginia — an expert team that is chipping away at designing a "Mars Ice Home."
"Ice Home is more than just a habitat, since what we really need is a new home on Mars," said Ice Home principal investigator Kevin Kempton, of NASA's Langley Research Center. "Our team is confident Ice Home is currently the best solution out there for an early Mars outpost."
The advantages of ice
Ice Home is a deployable Mars habitat concept based on an inflatable structure that makes use of water ice on the Red Planet. Ice Home could provide a large, flexible and cost-effective workspace that can be used for many of the key activities that are essential for the long-term success of a human outpost on Mars, Kempton said.
Much of the cost-effectiveness comes from the incorporation of Martian resources into the Ice Home, which means not as much material would need to be launched from Earth, he added.
An added biological bonus, according to Ice Home advocates, is that water ice serves as shielding from galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), which have been flagged as potentially dangerous to human health on long-duration Mars surface missions. An Ice Home could significantly reduce astronauts' GCR dosages compared with habitats based on an aluminum structure, Kempton said.
Current habitat concepts do not address the GCR issue, or they require burial beneath several meters of Martian dirt (known as regolith), added Kempton, who leads a design group that consists of the Clouds Architecture Office (Clouds AO)/Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) team and individuals who had previously won a NASA Centennial Challenge on 3D-printed habitats with their Ice Home concept.
The Ice Home would offer other benefits to Mars astronauts as well, Kempton said.
"When we go to Mars, we will stay there for a long time," he told Space.com. "We will need a place to service the robotic equipment that will be out there working for us in very difficult environments." [How Living on Mars Could Challenge Colonists (Infographic)]
Fixing things in a pressure suit out on the Martian surface is a problem, Kempton said: "Doing work while wearing pressurized gloves is a lot like wearing clown gloves, and simple things are hard to do and your hands get tired real quickly."
The solution, Kempton said, is to have a large pressurized work space where all you need is an environmental suit so you don't breathe in the potentially toxic dust that's on the equipment you are servicing.
Mars Ice Home fits the bill, he said.
"Many of the 3D-printed structures made from regolith look great, but they would not hold pressure very well," Kempton said. "Mars is close to vacuum, and the required internal pressure loads will literally blow these things up without a heavy restraint layer. You will not be able to get around the fact that, on Mars, you will be living in a pressure vessel, and the shapes they take [are] pretty limiting for designers."
As currently envisioned, Mars Ice Home would provide work space for a crew of four. The concept incorporates a sleep area, a food-production area, a logistics area, a recreation area and a work area.
The pressure inside the habitation area would be 14.7 lbs. per square inch, and it would feature a comfy internal temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius), Kempton said.
Mars Ice Home would also be connected to one or more additional habitation areas, Kempton said.
Pure water ice acts as the fill material for Ice Home's shielding and structure. The primary insulation layer between the water cells and the ice cells would be a carbon dioxide gas cell layer, which would use gas from the Martian atmosphere.
And Ice Home dwellers wouldn't feel trapped in a dark, cramped space, Kempton said.
"All of the materials we've selected are translucent, so some outside daylight can pass through and make it feel like you're in a home and not a cave," he said.
Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," published in October by National Geographic this October. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel six-part series, Mars, that began airing in November. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.