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Credit: MIT Civil and Environmental Engineering

This futuristic bubble world could be what Martian cities look like

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Nov 29, 2017, 9:32 AM EST

We might dream big in science fiction, but humans who want us to become an interplanetary species still need to address the issue of Martian living.

One way Earthlings could survive on a dry, dusty planet that is nearly devoid of an atmosphere might have been figured out by the winning team in the Mars City Design 2017 contest. Epcot might have been onto something with its geodesic Spaceship Earth dome that was supposed to be considered futuristic in the ‘80s. Led by MIT Assistant Professor Caitlin Mueller and postdoctoral student Valentina Sumini, the interdisciplinary team’s Redwood Forest design may look like a network of Epcot domes bubbling up on the Martian surface—but is light-years ahead in functionality.

The domes are actually tree habitats with a subterranean system of “roots,” or tunnels, that give easy access to private spaces—which is something you’re going to need if you’re cohabiting with 50 other people in one of these things—and other habitats. The tunnels will also offer better protection from the Red Planet’s killer radiation than any level of SPF as well as the temperature extremes and micrometeorite impacts human Martians will come to expect.

“Each tree habitat incorporates a branching structural system and an inflated membrane enclosure, anchored by tunneling roots,” explained Sumini. “Each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces.”

So what would actually living in one of these bubbles be like? Public spaces inside the enclosures were conceptualized for cultivating plants and storing the water supply. Sustainability is a priority for survival, so residents would be dependent on resources readily available on the planet, such as regolith (that dusty reddish soil) and ice that would be melted down for water. Everything that can be solar-powered will be. Considering how fiercely the sun beats down on Mars, there shouldn’t be much of a problem with that.

“Every tree habitat in Redwood Forest will collect energy from the sun and use it to process and transport the water throughout the tree, and every tree is designed as a water-rich environment,” said team member George Lordos, a Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics doctoral student and Systems Design and Management Fellow. Think hydroponic farms that would supply vegetables and fish along and solar panels powering the molecule-splitting process that converts H2O to oxygen and rocket fuel.

While the race to Mars continues, with Elon Musk revving up SpaceX to get boots onto Martian soil much faster than NASA would ever advise, this ingenious design can be used right here on the home planet. Anyone living in an inhospitable place would benefit from a sustainable structure that makes conditions much more tolerable. Underground tunnels could be the answer to congested city streets, while hydroponic gardening could be the answer to seeing some green beneath the asphalt. It could even (hypothetically) work at the bottom of the ocean.

Until some of us do become Martians, the innovative ideas submitted to Mars City Design will have to just blow our minds here on Earth.