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Background

The urbanization of Earth has a big head start on Mars. But with the majority of Earth’s population now living in urban areas, our planet is experiencing problems with overcrowding, pollution, insufficient transportation and heavy strain on aging infrastructure. As we plan to have 1 million people living on Mars, how do we create an urbanization strategy to solve these issues?

Our Urbanization project focuses on two main components: Infrastructure and Transportation. Over the next year, we will be running a series of Brainstorms and Challenges to co-design our future life on Mars. The Urbanization Project will be focused on three distinct Challenges - Concept, Modeling and Rendering - resulting in the final ultimate VR Experience which will be premiered in August 2018. Join Concept Challenge now to get started!

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Infrastructure

For most of the history of transportation, infrastructure was built as an afterthought. We built wider canals after we started using larger boats. We built stronger roads after using heavier vehicles. What if we could reverse this trend and be proactive about our infrastructure needs? What should our roads, skyways, tunnels or spaceports look like on Mars?

Some important technical considerations:

Mars surface gravity - 62% lower than it is on Earth. 

Mars average temperature - Very cold. Averaging -63 °C compared to Earth’s 14 °C.

Mars soil composition - rocky outcroppings, high sand dunes and loose sand, including rocks with a wide range of sizes from large boulders to caked silt.

Mars oxygen level - 0.1% (compared to 21% on Earth)

What type of structures make the most sense gives these considerations? What materials should we use to build these structures? How can we build in a smart way that allows later iterations of transportation to fit within the existing model?

Also, consider the location we are focusing on for this project. Mawrth Vallis (from the Welsh word for “Mars” and the Latin word for “valley”) is located in the Oxia Palus quadrangle at 22.3°N, 343.5°E with an elevation approximately two kilometers below datum (Mars’ measurement equivalent of sea level.) Situated between the southern highlands and northern lowlands, the valley is a channel formed by massive flooding which occurred in Mars’ ancient past. It is an ancient water outflow channel with light-colored clay-rich rocks.

(Mawrth Vallis via NASA)

Building in this type of environment will require strong and resilient materials. But those may not be the same strong and resilient materials we use on Earth. New planet, new rules, right?

Strength and durability are important but it’s also important that the people of Mars enjoy and appreciate a piece of infrastructure. How many times do we hear about “ugly power lines” or eyesore structures that block natural views? What are some of the most innovative and lasting pieces of infrastructure on Earth today? What gets the job done and looks good while doing it? What can we learn from some of our overused, crowded and failing highways, bridges and tunnels around the world?

Infrastructure can come in many different forms but usually refers to things like utilities, transport vehicles, telecommunication systems, roads, highways, railways, subways, traffic lights and street lights, dams, walls and culverts, drainage systems, airports, bus terminals and bridges.

Transportation

In the early 1900s, an artist in France imagined what travel would look like in the distant year 2000. Some of these ideas, although quite outlandish, attempted to solve the problems of mobility for the day. Is there anything we can learn from these images? Probably not much from a technical point of view, but when it comes to creating new transportation for Mars, the sky's the limit.

Since the dawn of humans on Earth, we have been searching for faster and more efficient ways to transport ourselves from point A to point B. Eventually we designed and built vehicles to solve our transportation needs, constantly building and improving on earlier versions. From the first locomotives to the earliest bicycles to the Ford Model T to jumbo jets to today’s electric cars and motorcycles, we keep innovating. But what if we could start from scratch?

When it comes to creating new modes of transport on Mars, we have similar considerations to those discussed in the building materials section for Infrastructure above. Consideration number 1 is the surface gravity. Martian gravity is 62% lower than it is on Earth. A person who weighs 100 kg (220.4 lbs) on Earth would weigh only 38 kg (83.7 lbs) on Mars. This difference in surface gravity is due to a number of factors including the planet’s mass, density, and radius. Even though Mars has almost the same land surface area as Earth, it has only half the diameter and less density than Earth – possessing roughly 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of its mass. In addition, the average surface temperature is also much lower on Mars, averaging a very frigid -63 °C (3 °F)  compared to Earth’s mild 14 °C (57 °F).

Consideration number 2 is the soil. Martian soil is unique and different from the terrestrial soil we find here on Earth. The surface of Mars is covered in a variety of different surfaces including rocky outcroppings, high sand dunes and loose sand. Additionally, the size of the “rocks” on Mars ranges across the entire Wentworth grain size scale all the way from boulders to clay.

(Wentworth Grain Scale via Wikipedia)

Images and measurements taken by the Mars Curiosity rover can be an invaluable resource for this project. After studying the various types of soil, sand and clay, notice the texture and wheel patterns the rover created. But perhaps, your vehicle won’t have wheels? This challenge will not limit the scope of what type of transportation you can create. Due to the lower gravity, would a vehicle that glides, hovers or flies be preferred? Is a beefed-up all-terrain rover still the best way to go? What kind of transportation would work best given the fuel resources available on Mars?

(NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows purple-hued rocks near the rover's late-2016 location on lower Mount Sharp)