Traveling to the stars is one thing. Living there is another.

Washington State University is tackling challenges that could enable future astronauts to survive indefinitely on Mars and other extraterrestrial locations.

At the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, for example, a team of students designed a domed habitat that could be built robotically from Martian or Lunar soil with a special 3D printer. Dubbed the WazzuDOME, it was selected by NASA as a finalist in a design competition last year and earned the team a trip to the world’s largest science fair, the annual Maker Faire, in New York City.

“We took this interdisciplinary approach,” says doctoral engineering student Thomas Gualtieri, who helped lead the project. “It was fun and we got to use our imagination, … but we also focused on efficiency and showing how everything that we were proposing could actually be done.”

The project, along with others on campus, comes as NASA continues to shift its focus from the shuttle era to deep space exploration instead. The space agency wants to be able to send astronauts to a distant asteroid by the year 2025 and to Mars during the 2030s.

WSU already had captured NASA’s attention in 2010 with its experiments on moon rocks brought back to Earth during the Apollo missions. Engineering professor Amit Bandyopadhyay demonstrated in 2010 that the rocks could be converted into usable fabricating material for 3D printers, which established for the first time that deep space construction with extraterrestrial rock and soil was a viable option.

The WSU moon rock experiments, in fact, were noted by NASA in the application materials sent to groups expressing interest in the habitat challenge.

Last summer, when Bandyopdhyay learned about the competition, he urged Gualtieri to help put a team together. They lined up undergraduate architecture student Neva Hubbert and two more engineers, doctoral student Samuel Robertson and undergrad Bonnie Hollon.

“Initially, we thought we could design this cool-looking space station,” Gualtieri says. But as the group met, and took into account variables such as limited cargo availability on a Mars-bound spaceship, the brainstorming shifted to more utilitarian approaches. “We also were looking at efficiency of the overall process and that’s what led us to the idea of domes.”

They decided on a series of three domed structures that would be built into the holes left by the robotic excavators digging out material for the construction process. The partial submersion would serve to help insulate the habitats and the process could be repeated whenever the colony needed to grow.

Key to their plan was a microwaving process that converts the rock and soil, which engineers call regolith, into usable 3D printer material. The students tested the microwaving process in WSU labs to show that it worked and designed portions of the robotic tractors to assist in the 3D printing of the habitat’s walls and roof.

The printer would be mounted to a large, movable frame able to straddle the excavated holes while using vertical and horizontal cross beams to position itself at points throughout the construction process.

The attention to detail is what set the proposed WazzuDOME apart.

“What they did was not just put together a design but showed how you would make it,” Bandyopadhyay notes.

Competing against longtime federal contractors, the European Space Agency and other research universities, the WazzuDOME drew high praise but lost to an entry from a national architectural design firm.

Bandyopadhyay says making it to the final round of the competition accomplished what he’d hoped his students would gain from the experience: valuable exposure.

“I had people coming up to me saying, `I just talked to your students and they’re really smart,’” says Bandyopadhyay, who traveled with the team to New York. “It was the kind of reaction I like to hear.”

Elsewhere on campus, a collaborative effort between WSU and the University of Idaho that challenges students to experiment with agricultural production in extraterrestrial settings is drawing national attention as well.

Michael Allen, a physics and astronomy professor at WSU, and University of Idaho food science professor Helen Joyner teamed up to develop the educational challenge, which has been published by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

The science exercise debuted nationally last year and uses information developed by the Mars Rover to approximate Martian soil conditions. Students then are tasked with identifying the optimal mix of crops to cultivate, taking into account the kind of restrictions actual astronauts would face, in order to produce enough food for a colony of 100 people.

Before being accepted by the peer-reviewed center, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, the exercise underwent nearly three dozen trial runs among students and faculty from WSU and Idaho.

None came up with the same combination of crops.

See the WSU students’ plans for the WazzuDOME (PDF)

On the web

NASA’s Centennial Challenges: 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge

Botanists Just Answered One of the Biggest Questions About Farming on Mars (Gizmodo, March 10, 2016)