The manned missions to Moon and Mars would need humans to built habitat for a prolonged stay and transporting the habitats or even the materials for construction is an expensive affair. So while the science fiction movies made you believe that our future on Mars and other planets would be metallic and run by machines, in reality, it could be a lot greener or organic.
Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi for astronauts on their mission to Moon or Mars. The myco-architecture project is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, known as NIAC that considers different aspects of life as technology.
The space agency’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats from fungi and the threads that make up the main part of the fungus– known as mycelia. The space agency is also exploring the possibility for it to become a more sustainable way of living on Earth as well.
“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,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project. “Instead, we can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there.”
The project envisions astronauts to have a compact habitat built out of lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars. Simply by adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat, while ensuring that it is contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.
The fungus and mycelia
It is a group of organisms that produces spores and eats up organic material. The most prominent example of a fungus is a mushroom or the yeast in bread. The mycelia of a fungus are the tiny threads build complex structures that network out into larger structures like mushrooms. NASA says that with the right conditions, these same threads can be coaxed into making new structures – ranging from a material similar to leather to the building blocks for a Mars habitat.
Myco-architecture on Moon and Mars
The myco-architecture is more than just walls. It will also help build furniture and other things of use. However, just like the astronauts, the fungal mycelia is a lifeform that eats and breathes. For this purpose, NASA proposes to use Cyanobacteria that can use energy from the Sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fungus food.
“These pieces come together in an elegant habitat concept with a three-layered dome. The outer-most layer is made up of frozen water ice, perhaps tapped from the resources on the Moon or Mars. That water serves as a protection from radiation and trickles down to the second layer – the cyanobacteria,” NASA said. “This layer can take that water and photosynthesize using the outside light that shines through the icy layer to produce oxygen for astronauts and nutrients for the final layer of mycelia.”
“That last layer of mycelia is what organically grows into a sturdy home, first activated to grow in a contained environment and then baked to kill the lifeforms – providing structural integrity and ensuring no life contaminates Mars and any microbial life that’s already there. Even if some mycelia somehow escaped, they will be genetically altered to be incapable of surviving outside the habitat,” NASA added.
Sustainable fungus homes back on Earth
NASA also proposes to use mycelia for water filtration and biomining systems that can extract minerals from wastewater. The fungal architecture could also be used as bioluminescent lighting, humidity regulation, and self-generating habitats capable of healing themselves. With about 40 per cent of carbon emissions on Earth coming from construction, NASA emphasises on the need for sustainable and affordable housing here on Earth.
“When we design for space, we’re free to experiment with new ideas and materials with much more freedom than we would on Earth,” said Rothschild. “And after these prototypes are designed for other worlds, we can bring them back to ours.”
NASA says that while the fungi could solve the problem of habitat on the harsh environments of the Moon and Mars, it could also design solutions for Earth that are green and sustainable.
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