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UCLA team aims to build prototype habitat with materials found on Red Planet for NASA contest’s next stage

By Matthew Chin

Buoyed by their success in the first stage of a recent NASA challenge, a team of UCLA engineers and architects aims to design and build a demonstration habitat for humans on Mars. Their prototype, to be entered in the challenge’s next stage, would be built with high-performance composite materials comprised only of materials native to the Red Planet.

Earlier this year, the UCLA Hybrid Composites team’s proposal earned a runner-up spot (fourth out of 165 entries) in the first stage of NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, part of the space agency’s Centennial Challenges program designed to “advance construction technologies needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond.”

“We hope to use the competition as a platform to develop techniques that can not only be capable of fabricating high-performance objects, such as satellites and spacecraft, but also dwellings and other enclosures capable of responding to hard unpredictable extraterrestrial contexts,” said Güvenç Özel, a lead faculty member and Program Advisor at IDEAS, a multidisciplinary research and development platform in the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and the principal of the design firm Ozel Office. “Moreover, the cutting edge fabrication methods we aim to develop will allow architects to design with a higher degree of freedom, flexibility and efficiency.”

The NASA 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge’s second stage comes in two parts. First, teams must demonstrate the feasibility of manufacturing their fabrication technologies. Second, teams must fabricate full-scale habitats. In both stages, only materials native to Mars are allowed.

“The UCLA team’s engineering experts in materials, 3D printing, robotics, and control are creating innovative processes and equipment for the MARS habitat challenge,” said Tsu-Chin Tsao, professor and chair of the UCLA Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

Using a type of 3-D printing, the team has proposed weaving high-performance composite materials from basalt, a type of volcanic rock widely distributed on the Martian surface.

The UCLA team includes experts in architecture, digital fabrication, computation, materials science, additive manufacturing, robotics, mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering. The team will include industry partnerships.

The UCLA Hybrid Composites team members include: Özel; Tsao; Les Lackman, deputy director of UCLA Engineering’s Institute for Technology Advancement (ITA) and an adjunct professor; Veronica Santos, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Xiaochun Li, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and holder of the Raytheon Endowed Chair in Manufacturing Engineering; Wei Kao, technology strategist at ITA; Larry Carlson, ITA’s director of advanced materials; Jenn-Ming Yang, professor of materials science and engineering and  UCLA Engineering’s associate dean for international initiatives and online programs; and Matt Gerber, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student.

Habitat concept image courtesy Güvenç Özel.