Designers have been challenged to explore the potential of rapidly advancing technology to create a 3D Printed habitat suitable for both deep space exploration and remote areas of earth.

America Makes, the 3D Printing Innovation Institute, and Maker Media, have partnered to launch the open innovation challenge, with NASA providing $2.25 million in prize funding.

NASA has a manned trip to Mars very much in its sights and it is hoped the competition will push the capabilities of additive construction technology past the point where it can reliably create sustainable housing solutions for Earth as well.

The potential power of 3D printing and additive construction technology is massive. Previously unheard of elements like internal lattice structures can now be used to increase strength and decrease weight. The goal is to capitalise on the unique capabilities of these technologies to use locally sourced resources as building materials. This will reduce the need to ship materials to the point of construction and enable the creation of safer and more sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond.

By solving the need to ship materials, solutions can be developed for a variety of scenarios, including those for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts on earth, and wherever affordable housing is needed and access to conventional building materials is limited.

For applications in space, the issue of launch payload is addressed. Every pound of payload costs $10,000 to get into orbit. Therefore, if planetary dust can be used as a material base, this would greatly increase the opportunity for the development of off-Earth shelters.

Shelter is among the most basic elements necessary for a sustained and manned exploration of Mars. The ability to send up a standalone robotic 3D printer capable of building a sturdy shelter out of oxidized iron dust, as well as waste material from the spacecraft, could be a game-changer. Not only would it make construction in space far easier, it would also eliminate the need to carry construction materials and enable extra cargo space for life-sustaining provisions.

The brief for the competition calls for a structure that can support four (fictional) astronauts as they train for a mission to Mars.

Level 1 of the challenge is focused on the core 3D printing fabrication technologies needed to manufacture structural elements from regolith (indigenous materials) combined with recycled materials.

Level 2 is focused on the 3D printing fabrication of a full-scale habitat using these same materials.

“The future possibilities for 3-D printing are inspiring, and the technology is extremely important to deep space exploration. This challenge definitely raises the bar from what we are currently capable of,” said Sam Ortega, NASA’s Centennial Challenges program manager.

The NASA Centennial Challenges were initiated in 2005 to directly engage the public in the process of advanced technology development. The US President’s budget request includes $4 million per year for Centennial Challenges prizes to allow further growth in the scope and range of prize competitions and even greater opportunities for the citizen-inventor to participate in NASA’s research and development.

“We believe that 3D printing/Additive Manufacturing has the power to fundamentally change the way people approach design and construction for habitats, both on earth and off,” said Ralph Resnick, founding director of America Makes, the public/private partnership of organisations focused on accelerating the capabilities and adoption of additive manufacturing technology.

A total of 30 finalists will have their designs displayed at the New York City Maker Faire, with a VIP judge panel and Faire-goers picking the winners on Sept. 27.