NASA

The First Mars Explorers May Use High-Tech Igloos For Shelter

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Mars is almost definitely the next place in the universe that humans will explore, but before we get there, we have a lot of hoops to jump through. Any mission to Mars would have to find a way to protect astronauts from the planet's extreme temperatures, deadly radiation, and thin atmosphere, just to name three. In 2016, experts at NASA's Langley Research Center conceived of a way to solve this problem that built upon a familiar concept: the igloo.

Related: Here's How Igloos Keep You Warm

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How It Works

The igloo—or Mars Ice Home, as it's called—is a 3D-printed habitat that's designed to be set up by robots before the first humans ever arrive on the Red Planet. It's essentially a translucent inner tube equipped with big pockets that can hold large amounts of water, which freezes to create a protective icy layer on the outside of the habitat. Inside, smaller pockets of carbon dioxide protect the inhabitants from the cold.

Related: Why Future Astronauts Will Need To Cook

Why Ice?

If you only think of ice as something to keep your drink cold and scrape off your windshield in the morning, take a seat: water ice is pretty great. For one thing, it's a natural radiation shield. Galactic cosmic rays—near-light-speed particles from other stars that knock apart the atoms they hit, causing dangerous secondary radiation—are made up of mostly protons. As space-radiation engineer Jonathan Pellish told NASA, "The best way to stop particle radiation is by running that energetic particle into something that's a similar size." The hydrogen in our good pal H2O contains a single proton (plus an electron), which perfectly matches the cosmic particles and makes it a great defense against them.

Related: Are Gamma-Ray Bursts Dangerous?

But there are other advantages to ice, too. Previously, engineers have kicked around the idea of burying habitats underground to shield people from radiation. But ice is translucent, so the Mars Ice Home would give inhabitants daylight that they wouldn't get underground. What's more, there's plenty of water ice right beneath the Martian surface, so we have built-in supplies, and the water could later be converted to rocket fuel, so the habitat could double as a fuel storage tank for the next crew. It's a win-win-win for igloos in space.

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