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Who Won the 2017 Mars City Design Architecture Prize?

MIT was just one participant in an international competition in which teams submit proposals for Martian colonies.
MIT Mars design

MIT's winning Mars city design. (Valentina Sumini / MIT Redwood Forest Team)

There’s been serious talk of late about sending people to Mars, the goal of which is to establish a permanent colony on the Red Planet, perhaps within the next decade. Assuming astronauts can survive the six-month-long journey in one piece, human life in the lethal Martian environment presents its own challenges. Sustainable habitation requires shelter, water, food and recreation, none of which exist on Mars in any usable form (there is water on Mars, but a lot of work is required to access it). Martian settlers will need to grow their own crops, generate their own air, purify their own water and find ways to have fun, all without any physical assistance from mission control.

Fortunately, there are some brilliant minds working to figure all this out, and very brave individuals living in Earth-based habitats that mimic what life would be like in a first-generation Martian colony.

Award-Winning Tree-Like Architecture

Every year, Mars City Design, an online symposium in which scientists and futurists submit ideas relating to the human colonization of Mars, holds an international competition in which teams submit proposals for Martian colonies, each of which are judged on a different design aspect. This year’s first-place winner in architecture comes from M.I.T., whose team’s design for a Martian habitat is rooted in the structure of trees.

The “Redwood Forest” may not look exactly like a tree, but the concept is similar. The team, led by postdoctoral student Valentina Sumini and Assistant Professor Caitlyn Mueller, proposed a system of underground roots in which inhabitants would live and work. On the surface, an enclosed glass dome would collect energy from the Sun and serve as a greenhouse and public recreation area. Redwood Forest’s forest-like design relies on harvesting natural resources, including the Sun, regolith (soil) and water. “Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape. Each tree habitat incorporates a branching structural system and an inflated membrane enclosure, anchored by tunneling roots. The design of a habitat can be generated using a computational form-finding and structural optimization workflow developed by the team. The design workflow is parametric, which means that each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces,” Ms. Sumini, co-leader of the MIT team, explained in an interview with MIT news.

MIT Mars Design
Credit: Geek.com

As proposed, Redwood Forest would be the first of potentially 200 tree-domes, each with its own unique culture and the ability to sustain up to 50 people. Interconnecting them could be a large step forward in the terraforming of Mars.  Terraforming Mars may eventually be achieved by creating a network of small habitats, given that Mars is completely inhospitable for human life. Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, but NASA’s 2020 rover will generate oxygen during its mission in 2020 as a first step for potentially making Mars more habitable. In Redwood Forest, however, this kind of artificial photosynthesis won’t be necessary, as trees and plants will generate oxygen and be used as food.

Naturally, water is the most crucial resource for human habitation. “Every tree habitat in Redwood Forest will collect energy from the sun and use it to process and transport the water throughout the tree, and every tree is designed as a water-rich environment,” says Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics doctoral student George Lordos, the Systems Design and Management Fellow. In addition to being used for drinking and bathing, water will insulate Redwood Forest from solar radiation while moderating heat distribution. It will also be supplied to hydroponic ponds for growing plants and fish. Using solar panels, water will be split into hydrogen and oxygen “for the production of rocket fuel, oxygen, and for charging hydrogen fuel cells, which are necessary to power long-range vehicles as well as provide backup energy storage in case of dust storms,” Mr. Lordos said.

But there’s more to Redwood Forest than on the surface. Redwood Forest’s biodome sits atop a network of underground roots, which function as living and working quarters for its residents.

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  • Brandon Gage

    Prolific Scribe

    Brandon began his writing career in a hospital bed in July, 2017. His mission is to provide insight into current events via daily breaking news, and to help bridge the gap between scientific advancement and the general public through weekly science digests. Brandon is also a contributing editor for Chosen Magazine. A total politics junkie, he ruins everyone's newsfeed on a daily basis. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music from Indiana University.

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