MIT redwood forest design wins 2017 Mars City Design competition


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A MIT design for an early Martian colony based on underground habitats topped by geodesic domes filled with redwood forests has won the 2017 Mars City Design competition.

At first glance, the MIT habitats don’t look very tree-like. They look more like giant glass balls sitting on the Martian plains, each housing 50 people. But, like real trees, much of the habitat is below the surface in the form of intricate tunnels that connect the spheres and provide protection from cold, radiation, micrometeorites, and other surface hazards. “On Mars, our city will physically and functionally mimic a forest, using local Martian resources such as ice and water, regolith or soil, and sun to support life,” says Sumini. “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.”

The habitats rely heavily on water, but not just for drinking, agriculture, or public fountains. It’s a key ingredient in making the domes habitable. “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. “Water fills the soft cells inside the dome providing protection from radiation, helps manage heat loads, and supplies hydroponic farms for growing fish and greens. Solar panels produce energy to split the stored water 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.”

This is a very nice concept, and an excellent approach. While they appear to assume the underground habitats will be artificially dug, there is no reason the tree domes can’t be placed over a Martian pit entrance to a cave.

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26 comments

  • wayne

    Silent Running
    (Intro monolog)
    https://youtu.be/Yq8y2aYX_8c
    2:12

  • Cotour

    The problem:

    “Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape. ”

    These structures don’t need to be “symbolic”, they need to be safe and functional and most important buildable and maintainable.

    Here is another glaring stop sign:

    “The design workflow is parametric, which means that each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces.”

    Thinking and terminology like this may be appropriate after you have been there for 10 years and you have all or most of the unknowns nailed down, but you do not begin something of this magnitude with these kinds of flowery concepts.

    I do not like it, more fanciful than practical mixed with design and functionality.

  • Cotour

    “as well as water harvested from the Martian polar ice caps to supply tree-like habitats, for a design capable of housing 10,000 inhabitants in shirt-sleeve comfort.”

    How do they intend to access all of this water from the ice caps? I have to assume that a settlement will not be located in the even harsher environment of the poles of the planet, how will the water be delivered to this utopia? Now if you were able to locate a frozen source of water in the lower latitudes and build close to or on top of it and mine it that might make basic survivability possible but getting the water from location A to location B is a bit of a problem.

    I like this also “Shirt sleeve comfort”, it will be a long, long time before there is going to be anything like shirt sleeve comfort. Total fanciful high school BS.

  • wayne

    Cotour–
    It does come across as a bit “progressive,” eh?! (California, In-Space. What could possibly go wrong?)

    Especially like your thought, Ref: “….they need to be safe and functional and most important buildable and maintainable.”

  • Ted

    After visiting the Muir woods and seeing these giant trees I asked the guide why they only grew in this part of the world. “It’s the uniques combination of the climate, water mist from the ocean, temperature etc.” You can buy little redwoods and take them home to plant but they won’t survive. I tried – I wanted one for my back yard just to annoy the neighbors!

  • wodun

    Nice spin on an old concept. How much sunlight would plants get? Even with a greenhouse type structure, it has to limit what can grow there.

    @Cotour

    Yes, they use word salad to describe what they plan. The more confusing and imprecise the wording is, the smarter it appears to academics.

    But don’t knock the shirt sleeves. Any habitat will be a shirt sleeve environment by default.

  • pzatchok

    The tree analogy is nice and pretty but I can see problems with their basic idea.

    As pointed out above, gathering water. but even if they get passed that they are planning on using that very same water to run fish farms and water plant farms. Along with consumption by animals like people.
    Then they plan on using all that same water as shielding inside the bio domes by pushing it through clear bags hung on the inside of the dome. This will also be used to gather solar heat to spread around the facility.
    The bags will soon be a great place to grow algae. They are warm and just all full of sunlight and nutrients.
    They will be bright green inside a few weeks. and cutting off the sunlight getting to the inside of the dome for the other plants.

  • Cotour

    Good point.

    Q: If algae is not brought from the earth to Mars then how will it germinate? If there is no plant life on Mars where will it come from? Will it arise as a result of growing transplanted plants from the earth to Mars? Is algae a manageable issue on Mars?

    Might the growth of bacteria be a more pressing concern?

    My other observation: Where are the materials to build these next gen high school design fancy structures going to come from? High tech glass, plastic, aluminum, titanium, iron etc. They will initially have to be brought but any major new development and construction will have to be totally based on the materials and processes that can be developed there. What big out put electrical generation / heat source will there be to accomplish this? Where is the big time energy on Mars?

  • LocalFluff

    Na, Elon Musk will simply drill his Mars colonies. Low gravity must be a great advantage for that in several ways. It is anyway the only doable alternative to landing habitats built on Earth. Just need one boring machine to do all of the job that a myriad of construction workers and diverse equipment needed to build a foundation, walls, roof.

    What does the construction process look like for these big spheres? Need pretty big cranes and transportation services for the beams that make up the structures. And lots of hands up there to make them fit together. Not practical. Much easier to simply let the boring machine eat its way through the underground to create ready buildings. They could maybe be moderately pressurized with high CO2 to make vegetation grow fast Humans could live in the tunnels in tents pressurized with breathable air.

  • Cotour

    Yeah, TBM’s are so light and compact, thats what they will do fly them from the earth to Mars.

  • LocalFluff

    Compare one tunnel boring machine with the machinery and people on any construction site on Earth. An all-in-one housing construction machine simplifies very much.

  • pzatchok

    By the way actual trees are a very bad choice for the first plants to grow in a bio dome,

    They take up a HUGE amount of space and give very little food back.

    A short height rice variety would be good for a grain. Water intensive but a very short growing season.
    Any of the standard garden vegetables.
    Berry bushes.
    Fruit trees are commonly kept very short so ladders are not needed for picking the full sized fruit.

    As for animals.
    Chickens, dwarf goats, catfish and tilapia.

    And enough invertebrates to keep all of this healthy. Got to have those bugs for the soil.

  • LocalFluff

    Berry bushes would be delicious. Better than quorn (hopeless brand name) made of some mushrooms cultivated in a cistern. Oranges are in many countries called Chinese apples because that’s from where they (were thought at least) to be first imported to Europe. Maybe Martian apples will be a luxury for royalties on Earth? Maybe they can export candy bars?

    Things grow taller in lower gravity, so trees would want to spread out really big, maybe even more so because of the dimmer sunlight. And where’s the radiation protection? Also, having astronauts climb to build those domes is not doable without heavy casualties. They still think Earth. They didn’t address the important problems, they made up a story about trees because that’s what the politically correct ordered.

  • wayne

    The 1st rule of space-advocacy;
    You are not allowed to rain on other people’s parades, no matter how Dumb the Idea actually Is.

  • LocalFluff

    wayne
    Oh, it is so easy to be a cloud, raining down on everybody. (Rain doesn’t work well in microgravity, though)

    But we have hands to grapple good things to use. And feet to kick bad things to out of range. We should apply this talent and not sheepishly accept whatever bad excuse some potentate randomly exclaims. When it’s within kicking range, kick it! This is about the future of all of human kind and of all life on Earth. We must treat this in a way that doesn’t leak failures into the very foundations of the ambition.

  • Cotour

    You know, there is a reason that there is no life of consequence on Mars, plant or otherwise. This conversation kind of borders on the ridiculous in its imaginings.

    The first people on Mars will have to bring years worth of food to sustain themselves and there will have to be many follow up “deliveries” from earth to accomplish that. That is only the first problem, the thought that a TBM or anything else like that or that trees will be grown to support environments is not likely and IMO fantasy for the most part. (PS: The support systems and man power that makes a TBM or anything like one operable is massive, never mind the machine itself)

    Any material’s of consequence used in construction and food stuff of consequence will have to be processed / grown and formed on site, and I believe that all of that remains to be establish as to how it will be accomplished.

    Mars is an extremely harsh environment void of many of the basic building blocks and condititons to support human, never mind bacterial or plant life.

  • wayne

    Cotour-
    Agree in large measure
    [“You are not allowed to rain on other people’s parades, no matter how Dumb the Idea actually Is.”]
    (Personally, I prefer targeting our Moon first, but that’s a different topic.)

    It’s more likely to evolve as a cross between Little House on the Prairie and maybe Outland. And with the Darker elements of Star Trek. (crudely stated) (and with a whole lot of digging di-lithium ore, by hand.)
    It’s very cold in Space, no one can hear you scream, there is no air, there is a lot of radiation, everything you need to live must initially be parasited off the Earth and brought with you. We need to Think radically simple, initially. All these fanciful complex intricate Idea’s are very interesting to me, but I also appreciate “anything that can go wrong, will.”

    Who Funds the Mars City Design Competition?

  • Cotour

    And some here question my “Credibility”?

    Observable events right here on earth that are counter to official narrative and reasonable common sense certainly trumps some BS (Bi coastal sewage) science fiction talk presented as being at some level real.

    Never mind what might or might not go on on Mars.

    Without direct and consistent support from the earth everyone dies, forget about trees and plants and chickens and domes for the foreseeable future on Mars if and when we get there.

    And I certainly agree that the moon should be the first place to do and prove these systems and technologies, to do otherwise is to be irresponsible. Its usually never good to skip from 1 to 10, all of those annoying steps between them will tend to extract their relevance out of the end result.

    This is the personality of the tech titans being expressed in the grandness of their plans. I do not think that space will be as forgiving as they need it to be. And I am not saying that these things can not be done, I think that it can be, but do not forget to do your home work and do not skip past where your realistic and proven abilities lie because people will die because of it.

  • wayne

    C-
    Good stuff!
    totally on board with your thought: “I do not think that space will be as forgiving as they need it to be.”
    And yes, “grandiose,” comes to mind.

    correction: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_Is_a_Harsh_Mistress

  • LocalFluff

    Bringing food to Mars, yes that’s how it will be. Earth is much more efficient to produce food. Earth will supply Mars with food. We even have very powerful international unions to protect agriculture on Earth. You have no chance to grow anything on Mars. Everything growing om Mars, or on any territory outside of the EU, and the domiciles of France, will be illegal crop until approved by the Brussels.

  • Cotour

    This is a more realistic scenario for both the moon and Mars.

    https://youtu.be/pk9PWUGkz7o

    But keep in mind the temperature variation on the moon ranges between +260 F and -280 F. I am curious as to what kind of binder will be supplied and where it will come from in the quantity required to be able to bond the regolith and operate within these ranges. Perhaps a spot would be found where the temperature was more or less stable. Or they might be able to only print the shell between certain times?

  • Cotour wrote, “Perhaps a spot would be found where the temperature was more or less stable.”

    The reason that caves are appealing is precisely because the temperature within them is stable. Moreover, they provide natural protection from radiation.

  • Cotour

    Yes, caves are attractive as long as they can reliably determined to be stable. I am very curious about what formulation any kind of binder used in dome building might have and how it would be applied.

    Would it be a polymer that is brought from earth and mixed using water mined on the moon? Would it be a cement like substance again combined with water mined on the moon? I am not aware of a substance that would fit these extreme application conditions. Possibly a material that cures very fast as its applied and becomes resistant immediately.

    And the fact that there is really no gravity on the moon the application of these materials would have to be done under pressure or force. No gravity, no air, we take both for granted in building on the earth but the lack of both presents real operational problems in placing materials where you need them.

    What happens when if water is used in these extreme conditions and a component freezes and stops the entire process? All of the equipment will have to have heating / thawing elements along all surfaces or enclosures where a liquid moves through or might be stored.

    Just noodling with the possible construction problems that will be encountered if indeed structures will be made on site. On any construction site on earth anything can and at some point will go wrong. One little thing can put the brakes on things until a part is found and replaced, or a line cleared, or an obstruction removed. On the moon or on Mars these little gremlins will be magnified 100 times. Problems solving men and women obviously are a must.

    Once again, I am not saying it should not or could not be done, it all should and will be done but it will not be in fancy tree strewn domes and shirt sleeve comfortable for a very, very long time. Everything will have to be pre made on earth and transported and landed, and if there will be some level of real manufacturing going on, where does the big power come from to weld or 3D cintering or extrud? Where is the fossil fuel level power on the moon and Mars? Nuclear? Ecat? Solar and Ecat? Where are the banks of batteries going to come from to store it? I could go on.

    The point, real time, real world, we will be living like fancy rats on both until these questions can reliably be answered.

  • Cotour: No gravity on the Moon? What are you talking about? Things weigh about 16% of what they weigh on Earth. While the engineering challenges are great (I agree with you on this), lack of gravity is not an issue.

  • Cotour

    I revise: Little gravity.

    Construction here on earth is dependent on 100% earth gravity, it gets things efficiently and reliably where they need to be. The lower 16% gravity on the moon is an issue related to construction or manufacturing, that and no atmosphere must be compensated for in order to actually produce what must be produced.

    Each planet or moon will present their own specific kinds of challenges.

  • LocalFluff

    Creating industry in space is not how space exploration will grow in our lifetime. Columbus didn’t build new ships in the Caribbean. Then the East Asians today took over all ship building pg the world! These organic events cannot be predicted. That’s why they are organic. Organic means that no one involved knows what it is all about and what future it leads to. A brain is just a temporary tool, most of which is wasted on caring about other brains.

    We now live in a kind of brain soap where the most important thing in life is to avoid the bad brains and connect with the good brains.

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