January 5, 2017

Could ice domes be the key to keeping us safe on Mars?

If humans plan to spend any significant amount of time on the surface of Mars, they will need to find a way to protect themselves from the harmful effects of radiation from space. Fortunately, a team of NASA scientists believe they’ve found the solution, and what it is may surprise you.

As Popular Science reported earlier this week, researchers from the US space agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia have been looking for the ideal material to use when building future structures on the Red Planet, and they believe using ice could provide significant protection from the high-energy radiation that colonists will encounter on the surface of Mars.

Anyone who travels beyond the Earth’s radiation-protective layer, including the astronauts who went to the moon as part of the Apollo program, will encounter galactic cosmic rays which could significantly impact their overall long-term health, the website explained. Since the Apollo team was not outside for extended periods of time, the effects were limited, but once people make it to Mars, they will be exposed for far longer periods of time, and the dangers will increase.

mars surface Mt. Sharp

The martian atmosphere is very thin and would not protect astronauts from radiation (Credit: NASA JPL)

In fact, while the Apollo astronauts may have seen their risk for cardiovascular disease increase a little bit due to their time on the lunar surface, Mars travelers could potentially encounter cell and DNA damage significant enough to increase their risk of cancer or diseases later on in life, not to mention short-term effects like nausea, vomiting and hemorrhaging.

So how do we protect them? The answer, according to the Langley team, may involve using ice to construct shelters. Yes, ice – as in, frozen water, which believe it or not, is quite good when it comes to blocking radiation due to the fact that it possesses two hydrogen atoms. In fact, experts say that just a five-centimeter layer of ice could bring gamma rays down to safe levels.

Domes would also be translucent and insulated using CO2

Using that knowledge, a team of NASA engineers and researchers joined forces to develop an innovative concept design known as the Mars Ice Dome. The Ice Dome, they explained, would be a large inflatable shelter shaped like an inner tube that would be surrounded by a shell of ice.

The lightweight device would be transported to Mars by robots, deployed and filled with water before any astronauts were due to arrive on the Red Planet. It would use materials extracted from the planet’s surface, and since the water contained in the dome could eventually be converted to rocket fuel for transport vehicles, it could double as a storage tank for future missions.

Furthermore, the materials selected for use in the structure are all translucent, Langley Mars Ice Home principal investigator Kevin Kempton said in a statement. That means that people living in the domes would be able to experience daylight passing through the walls, making the structures “feel like you’re in a home and not a cave,” he said. “After months of travel in space, when you first arrive at Mars and your new home is ready for you to move in, it will be a great day.”

Those materials “will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation... atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms – although not as fierce as in the movie ‘The Martian’,” explained fellow Langley researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.

Based on the team’s measurements, resources to fill the domes could be extracted from Mars at a rate of one cubic meter (35.3 cubic feet) per day. At that rate, each of the Domes would be filled completely in 400 days, although that fill time could be reduced if researchers figure out a way to extract water at a higher rate, the NASA researchers said. Furthermore, the structure would use a layer of carbon dioxide (also obtainable on Mars) as insulation.


Image credit: NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch