French sci-fi aesthetic comes to 3D-printed Mars habitat

What will our homes on Mars look like? If French 3D printing firm Fabulous has anything to do with it, like something out of a Moebius comic.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

French science fiction has a very particular aesthetic. From Luc Besson to Rene Laloux to Enki Bilal to Philippe Druillet to Moebius, a distinct style emerges: futuristic, beautifully coloured and lushly organic, but not entirely unlike how our world is currently designed.

NASA has been hosting a 3D-printed Mars habitat challenge. The competition, which asks participants to "develop state-of-the-art architectural concepts," is only open to people based in the US -- but that hasn't stopped French 3D printing company Fabulous from having a go anyway, in collaboration with The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Mars Society.

The design created by the team of scientists, architects, image specialists and 3D-printing specialists is called Sfero, a name meaning "sphere," "iron" and "water," and it resembles nothing so much as an igloo crossed with a large droplet of water sitting on the surface of Mars, contained by its own surface tension.

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Sfero's construction incorporates a layer of water for insulation. Fabulous. Used with permission

The "iron" part of the design comes from the iron in Mars' composition, which gives the planet its red colour. This could, Fabulous argues, be harvested and repurposed into the base structure Sfero dwelling.

The other element that has been proven present on Mars, water in the form of frozen ice, would also be used in the habitat's construction.

"A water pocket inserted between two iron hulls would gain the following benefits: transparency, in particular to establish a plant in the habitat biosphere; protection against solar radiation -- it is indeed proven that hydrogen is the best protection against solar radiation. An envelope of 30 centimetres of water and therefore hydrogen is sufficient to produce this protection -- and a permanent psychological reminder of the main element of the mother planet, water constituting a sort of protective amniotic fluid for humans," the Sfero project page reads.

Iron would be harvested by a robotic arm, which would excavate material from the soil. The iron would then be extracted, and the powdered metal would be 3D printed using direct metal laser sintering, wherein a laser fuses the metal into shape according to a 3D blueprint, layer by layer.

The structure is a lot bigger than it looks, too. Half of it is below the surface, underneath the main structure, in the natural insulation of the ground. The entire structure is built around a central pole, bedded underground in a solid foundation. This will also harvest water from the permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, to feed the water insulation on the top layer, and irrigate the plants.

While the habitat won't be entered into the NASA competition, Fabulous doesn't believe that its time has been wasted designing Sfero.

"The competition is reserved only for American citizens, but we still decided to show the French expertise in 3D printing, space travel, and architecture," wrote Fabulous' Arnoult Coulet.

"If you are still wondering why we have spent the summer on this project, know that what is possible on Mars is also possible on Earth. Construction (real estate construction) is the new playground of 3D printing, demonstrated by concrete and upcoming commercial applications currently undertaken in Dubai, China and Amsterdam. As a specialised consulting firm on 3D printing, we are following at this development very closely."