NASA’s plan is being developed by the NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Martian settlements built from fungi could offer a greener and more efficient alternative to more traditional construction methods.
Principal investigator Lynn Rothschild said: “Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle – carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan but with huge energy costs.
“Instead, we can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there.”
The mycelium is the branch-like structures fungi use to hold onto soils or other surfaces.
Although mycelium typically grows out into mushrooms, by carefully controlling the fungi’s environment, scientists can coax the mycelium to form complex and rigid structures.
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Environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and airflow can transform the seemingly innocuous fungal growth into entire homes.
NASA is experimenting with mycelium by allowing the fungus to grow around pre-built frames and then baking the structure to reinforce it.
By combining mycelium with wood chips and “yard waste”, researchers have also been able to create brick-like building blocks.
The research is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts programme or NIAC.
The programmed is looking into how synthetic biology can aid future exploration of the solar system.
Unfortunately, the research is still in its infant days and NASA said it is still “a very long way from being able to grow useable habitats for Mars”.
We can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there
Dr Lynn Rothschild, NASA
But the research is underway and could one day offer construction solutions not just for outer space but also Earth.
Dr Rothschild said: “When we design for space, we’re free to experiment with new ideas and materials with much more freedom than we would on Earth.
“And after these prototypes are designed for other worlds, we can bring them back to ours.”
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How else could NASA build habitats on the Moon and Mars?
Another plan explored by the US space agency involves using the materials abundantly present on the Moon and the Red Planet.
By sending a fleet of rovers and 3D-printer-like machinery to Mars, for instance, NASA could build safe habitats before humans arrive.
The rovers would collect rock and soil from the planet’s surface and process the mix into a material that could then be assembled into bricks or other prefabricated structures.
A similar proposal is being explored by the European Space Agency (ESA) for future settlements on the Moon.
ESA’s General Director Jan Wörner is positive humans will one day have a permanent presence on the Moon.
He said: “My intention is to build up a permanent base station on the Moon.
“Meaning that it’s an open station, for different member states, for different states around the globe.”
NASA similarly hopes to establish a permanent and “sustainable” human outpost on the Moon by the year 2028.
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