As shown in the movie "The Martian" starring Matt Damon, living on Mars presents a number of challenges. The red planet hosts an unbreathable atmosphere, extreme temperatures, high levels of radiation and dust storms, so future settlements there will need to be built with adaptability and resiliency in mind.
That's the idea behind a leading NASA design for homes that the first Mars pioneers could be living in, so-called "ice homes." The shelters look reminiscent of igloos, and that idea isn't far off. The fully inflatable, inner-tube-like domes are to be covered in a shell of water ice, which offers insulation and protection from the elements.
“After a day dedicated to identifying needs, goals and constraints we rapidly assessed many crazy, out-of-the-box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution,” said Kevin Vipavetz, Langley Research Center senior systems engineer.
The main advantages with the design are that it's lightweight, meaning it isn't too expensive to launch and transport, and the inflatable design also makes it easy to deploy upon arrival. Because ice is rich in hydrogen, the frozen shell provides excellent shielding from radiation. The water could also potentially be converted into fuel, so the entire dome also acts as energy storage which can be re-filled as needed.
You can get a more detailed idea of what the inner living corridors are like from the following graphic:
The icy shell also means the shelter has a stylish natural window to the outside Mars landscape. All of the materials that make up the shell are translucent, so outside daylight can pass through and give a real sense of home and daily rhythm to those stuck inside doing research all day.
All in all, it's a sturdy design that should offer a balance between comfortable living space and structural integrity.
“The materials that make up the Ice Home will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms," reiterated Langley researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.
Furthermore, because the ice homes can self-assemble robotically, they can be ready for move-in before astronauts even arrive, which would undoubtedly offer a comforting feeling after a long space journey.