In March 2016 NASA awarded three prizes for proposals on the use of in situ Martian resources to construct habitats for astronauts.
The focus of the proposal was on using Martin regolith to build the habitat as opposed to earlier proposal which envisioned using regolith to shield a habitat brought from Earth.
This approach would have an extremely significant impact on the journey to Mars.
“ . . . for every kilogram of native materials used, one saves 11 kg of transportation propellant and spacecraft mass required to launch to Low Earth Orbit . . .”
NASA estimates the cost of lifting one kilogram into Low Earth Orbit to be US$110,000. Building habitats on site rather than carrying them there results in cost savings which can be channeled into the science aspects of the mission.
NASA imposed the following weight and size constraints on proposals:
NASA described the challenge in these terms:
One could use surface-based materials such as regolith or basalt to produce structural elements that can be interconnected to create launch/landing pads; blast protection berms; roads and walkways; radiation, thermal, and micro-meteorite shielding insulation and structures; equipment shelters; pressure vessels for fluids storage; ablative atmospheric entry heat shields; construction foundations; and other useful structures.
Clearly NASA envisions using regolith across a broad spectrum of needs.
Three proposals received modest prizes from NASA.
First prize was a $10,000 award to Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of USC for the methods described in his proposal to use in situ resources in the construction of habitats on Mars.
The modest amount of the prize belies the major contribution Dr. Khoshnevis’ process can make not only to NASA’s mission to Mars or any space mission requiring the construction of a habitat but also to construction of buildings on Earth.
Dr. Khoshnevis is a Dean’s Professor at USA Viterbi teaching in several fields related to the design and construction of robotic and mechanical systems and computer simulation. He is an inventor, an inductee in the National Academy of Inventors and a Fellow of NASA’s NAIC program.
Among his inventions is an additive manufacturing process called Contour Crafting which is capable of building large structures. This is the process which earned Dr. Khoshnevis the award.
The inset pic shows what appears to be a distant cousin of an Imperial walker adding layers to a building’s wall on the lunar surface.
A two minute video of the process can be seen at Contour Crafting 3D manufacturer. It’s interesting to see the lunar regolith being dumped into a hopper in the video.
Two other proposals were awarded prizes of $2,500 each.
The proposal identified as the second place finisher was submitted by David Espinosa, a consultant in the energy industry and David Orlebeke of Aronax Technologies Group LLC.
Espinosa and Orlebeke proposed using “cold spray” technology. Described as “3D painting”, cold spray technology literally sprays metal powder through a nozzle to create a habitat. The technology can also be used to “spray” into existence a wide variety of industrial parts and can be used in industries as diverse as oil and gas to aircraft engine repair.
Third place was awarded to Patrick Donovan for his proposed use of simultaneous exhaust-enabled ore reduction, separation and processing.
NASA published little more than Mr. Donovan’s name and a generic description of his proposal.
What’s interesting is that NASA seems to be doing some very preliminary work for a project of such importance to a manned mission to Mars.
How far away is our journey to Mars?