How to meet the challenges of extraterrestrial architecture?

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© 3D PRINTED HABITAT / Hassell Studio

Exploring life beyond the earth has been mankind’s most cherished indulgence for centuries. From building the first spacecraft, to building moon bases, and now landing on our neighboring red planet, Mars, we’ve come a long way in discovering the universe. Plus, leading space organizations like NASA, ESA, and ISRO regularly confirm new discoveries, helping us unlock the mysteries of the cosmos, layer by layer.

While science fiction movies and books have helped us enormously to visualize this outside world, the excitement of actually witnessing it is immeasurable. Additionally, the degradation of Earth’s environment due to climate change and overwhelming population has created an urgency to search for other exploitable celestial spheres. To that end, scientists, architects, geologists and sociologists around the world are working together to test habitability beyond Earth.

What is Extraterrestrial Architecture?

alien architecture
Quzhou Sports Campus in China © MAD

The design and construction of built environments in the outside world is called extraterrestrial architecture. While the start of new civilizations in outer space is a huge opportunity for technological innovations, it is also a challenge for developers to create healthy ecosystems.

Challenges facing extraterrestrial architecture

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© AI SpaceFactory

Designing and building habitable spaces beyond the Earth’s surface and atmosphere requires an innate understanding of space’s climate, topography, and material availability. Making the most of available resources and using scarcity as a means to innovate will be crucial in determining the future of alien architecture.

Water shortage

alien architecture
Environment observed on Mars today compared to the early Martian environment © Simon Fraser University

As an important component of construction activities, the availability of ready-to-use water in outer space is questionable. Speaking of Mars, the planet has only 5 million cubic meters of water, for a direct consumption much lower than the 1.5 billion cubic meters available on earth. The low pressure and temperature of the planet do not allow water to remain in a liquid state for a long time.

The other water reserves on Mars are available in the form of ice which must be heated to be transformed into water. This statistic pushes us to rethink our current use of water on earth and the way we have harnessed the resource. Therefore, architects will need to find alternatives to water which can provide a similar quality of bond and which are available in abundance.

Environmental ends

alien architecture
Mars Science City © Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Climate is another important factor in the design and construction of the built environment. For example, the temperature on the moon is as high as 260 degrees during the day and as low as 280 degrees at night. While recent research by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles predicts that the moon has pits and caves with moderate temperatures to make human habitation possible, the chances of survival are still quite slim. Additionally, soil on the moon, also known as moon dust when inhaled, can irritate the throat, lungs, and eyes.

On another note, Mars also has extreme environmental conditions. It has no breathable air and a very thin atmosphere making its surface prone to high levels of radiation. Therefore, architects must explore underground and rigid design solutions to protect humans from the extreme climate.

Renewable energy

alien architecture
Case MARS © WU Qingshan

Based on current research, few celestial bodies have shown the ability to host life in the past, either due to lack of water or atmosphere. So most of them have no fossil fuels because there are no fossils. Therefore, the only reliable source of energy in outer space is renewable energy. Architects will need to fully house the power of solar, wind, tidal and nuclear energy to make built spaces functional. Local Martian materials would also be a promising resource from which architects could build.

A classic example of this can be seen in the material innovation of building design proposed by IDEA Architecture Office for March. Spanish architect Albero Villanueva has proposed a design that combines Martian materials with fungi and mycelium to create a structural capacity capable of withstanding extreme weather conditions on the Red Planet. This design should provide a protective atmosphere for humans and make the interiors more hospitable.

difference in severity

alien architecture
3D Printed Habitat Challenge for Mars © Team SEArch+/Apis Cor

The laws of gravitational attraction are different for each celestial body depending on its location in the solar system and the surrounding atmosphere. Essentially, this force of gravity is integral to design and construction as it defines the movement pattern and style of people inhabiting a space. Taking the example of Mars, its gravity is measured at 3.7 m/s2, much less than the 9.807 m/s2 available on Earth.

So walking on Mars will be much more bouncy than on Earth. Therefore, aspects such as ceiling height and the design of building services would be significantly impacted to support the gravitational pull of the red planet. Alternatively, recent research by Kyoto University and Kajima Corporation in Japan has proposed the construction of artificial gravitational buildings to allow life to thrive on Mars and the Moon.

Lack of resources

3D printed habitat challenge for Mars © Team LavaHive

A significant disadvantage of building in space is the availability of resources for construction. Architects have to be smart about using resources because only a limited amount of them can be transported from the earth. Therefore, all structures must be designed efficiently by applying the principles of reduce, recycle and reuse. Designing that promotes sustainability and a circular economy will ensure that the design and construction process is 100% waste-free.

LavaHive’s proposed Mars Habitat design is a great example of recycling and reusing resources from afar. They created a 3D-printed modular dwelling using an innovative construction technique called “lava casting.” The materials used in the construction of this dwelling have been recycled and repurposed using scrap materials from construction sites.

Vulnerability of the human psyche

Areth – An architectural atlas © Adam Ryder

Humanity is accustomed to the earthly environment and relies on nature to relax and feel comforted. Moving to a new planet or a new satellite will make people feel isolated and alienated. Lack of familiarity with the environment and confinement indoors can aggravate physiological and psychological disorders. From having a range of headaches to sleep disturbances and emotional breakdowns; people’s well-being will be a serious problem that architecture can help solve. Architects should think about creating built spaces that allow moderate sunlight to enter the building. Incorporating and maintaining plants in controlled environments will also be necessary to make people feel reassured.

In conclusion

© 3D PRINTED HABITAT / Hassell Studio

Although explorations around alien architecture began with the need to rehabilitate humanity, they are now turning into a rat race, with each agency wanting to outdo the other. Discussions of mining and colonization of the moon, potential damage from space debris, and contamination of the space ecosystem are some of the major concerns regarding extraterrestrial architecture.

It is important to realize that the ability to explore the outer world is a privileged power that must be properly exercised. Following a scientific and strategic code of conduct in space will not only help create a thriving built environment, but will also benefit the human race as a whole.

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