Apis Cor, the parent company of Skolkovo resident Apis-Cor Engineering, has won fourth place in a NASA competition to design a 3D-printed habitat that could be built on Mars.

SEArch+/Apis Cor's design provides maximum radiation protection from galactic cosmic rays, says the team.  Image: NASA.

NASA selected five winning teams in its 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge competition, who will now share a $100,000 prize. A total of 18 teams from all over the world took part, creating digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a house on Mars using specialized software tools.

The habitat had to comprise 1,000 square feet of living space to support four astronauts for one year and include plans for systems such as life support, mechanical and electrical, spacesuit and rover hatches, and plumbing. Apis Cor, which uses 3D printing to construct buildings, teamed up with space architects SEArch+, and together won just under $20,000, a sum based on the score the team was awarded by a panel of experts from NASA, academia and industry.

“When people land on Mars, certain conditions must be created there,” Apis Cor founder and CEO Nikita Cheniuntai wrote in a recent post on the online publishing platform Medium, arguing that 3D printing is the best solution for building on Mars.

“This means that the construction on Mars should be organized so that it takes place with minimal human participation and usage of local materials. This is only possible if all construction equipment will be as automated as technically possible,” he wrote.

“We already have a successful experience of printing houses on Earth  —  last year we printed the first house in Russia and want to move on. The NASA competition offers great opportunities for us. It’s not just a meeting with like-minded people or sharing knowledge and ideas. This is a chance to apply our experience outside the planet and contribute to the implementation of the mission to develop Mars," wrote Cheniuntai.

Video: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

The Mars X House designed by SEArch+ and Apis Cor has two overlapping structural load-reducing shells that form one metre of overhead shielding for the crew from solar radiation and galactic cosmic rays. The house has apertures that allow refracted northern light to penetrate from the horizon up to 30 degrees, while maintaining protection from direct solar gain from the south, and galactic cosmic rays from above. The light is bounced into internal skylights and horizontal apertures, while two viewing apertures provide the crew with views to the Martian landscape.

“SEArch+, short for Space Exploration Architecture, has designed X-House to take advantage of the unique capabilities of 3D printing to provide maximum radiation protection from galactic cosmic rays, while celebrating human life through vital connections to natural light and the Martian landscape beyond,” the SEArch+/Apis Cor team said in a video presenting their design for a Mars habitat that would be built prior to a crew’s arrival.

"We are pleased to work with SEArch+, which has a tremendous knowledge of space architecture," wrote Cheniuntai. "This allows us to enrich our experience in a new direction for us and share our knowledge in robotics and materials science with like-minded people. I believe our joint work will help in solving the problems of Mars exploration and its colonization."

The aim of the competition, which was held in partnership with Bradley University of Peoria, Illinois, is to “further the progression of sustainable shelters that will someday occupy the Moon, Mars or beyond by pushing citizen inventors to develop new technologies capable of additively manufacturing a habitat using indigenous resources with, or without, recyclable materials,” NASA said in a statement, noting that “creating a structure on the surface of Mars is an extraordinary challenge considering the extensive limits on transporting materials and the differences in atmosphere and landscape.”

“They [the teams] are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets,” Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said in the statement on NASA’s website. 

"This is a chance to apply our experience outside the planet and contribute to the implementation of the mission to develop Mars" - Nikita Cheniuntai, CEO and founder of Apis Cor.

“We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward.”

The full list of winning teams and prizes awarded was as follows.

  1. Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas - $20,957.95
  2. AI. SpaceFactory of New York - $20,957.24
  3. Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi - $20,622.74
  4. SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York - $19,580.97
  5. Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois - $17,881.10

The 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge was launched in 2014 and is currently in its third phase, the design and structural member stages having been completed in 2015 and 2017, respectively. The current phase is the On-Site Habitat Competition, which has three construction levels and two virtual levels. In the construction levels, the teams will have to autonomously 3D-print elements of the habitat, at the final level producing a one-third-scale printed habitat to win prize money of $2 million.

Apis Cor made headlines around the world at the end of 2016 when it printed a 38-square-metre house in the Moscow suburb of Stupino in just 24 hours and at a cost of less than $10,000. Its daughter company Apis-Cor Engineering became a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation’s energy-efficient technologies cluster earlier that year, having come to the attention of the foundation in the company’s home city of Irkutsk, when it was one of the winners of the Irkutsk stage of the Startup Tour, Skolkovo’s roaming quest for talented tech startups. The company won a grant of 3 million rubles ($53,000) from Skolkovo in the final of the Technostart competition for industrial solutions, also in 2016. In March last year, the company topped the best hardware startup category in the Startup of the Year awards.