• NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge finally revealed a winner this month after four years of competition.
  • Designers were asked to create a printable 3D habitat that could shelter humans on Mars.
  • The winning design, known as Marsha, features vertical pods with outer shells made from materials naturally found on the red planet.
  • The pods also feature hatches that deploy space suits and a docking port for a Mars Exploration Rover.

Designing space colonies has become a pet project for some of the world's most prominent architects, but few concepts have received a coveted stamp of approval from the space explorers at NASA.

Earlier this month, NASA awarded first place in its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, which asked teams to build a 3D habitat that could shelter humans on Mars.

The competition, which began in 2015, was divided into three phases: design, material technologies, and construction. The finalists came down to just two teams, AI SpaceFactory and Pennsylvania State University, who were given four days to build shelters at a third the size of their original vision.

The winning team, AI SpaceFactory, was awarded $500,000 for its design — a vertical pod that can be printed in just 30 hours.

Take a look at the prototype, Marsha, which will soon be recycled into a real-life habitat on Earth.

NASA aims to build habitats on Mars before people arrive, so the teams' prototypes needed to support human life.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The ideal prototype had to be both strong and lightweight, like an airplane.

Marsha's vertical pods mimic Earth's natural lighting, while offering a peek at their surroundings.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The pod windows can shield inhabitants from solar radiation.

The pods feature hatches that deploy space suits and a docking port for a Mars Exploration Rover.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The company refers to the prototype as "a tiny bubble of Earth."

There are also spaces for sleeping and working.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The design features a garden, kitchen, and a room for exercise and recreation.

The exterior consists of a double-coated shell that keeps the internal temperature consistent.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

Inhabitants can climb lighted stairs to access each level.

For the final round of the competition, the design was printed before a live audience in just 30 hours.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

An industrial robot was raised by a forklift to print the 15-foot habitat, which contains around 550 layers of material.

The company developed its own formula using materials found naturally on the red planet.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The material, or "Martian polymer," consists of basalt fiber taken from Martian rock and biodegradable plastic made from plants that could theoretically grow on Mars. Most importantly, the formula doesn't require water.

The prototype passed NASA's "crush test," though it did spill some broken pieces.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

The designs were tested for leakage, durability, and strength.

Whereas other teams designed low-lying domes, AI SpaceFactory said vertical pods are better suited to handle the atmospheric pressure on Mars.

Image: AI SpaceFactory

By printing vertically, the company can keep its industrial robot in one place instead of making it roam across terrain.

The company plans to recycle the materials from its prototype to create a similar habitat on Earth.

 Exterior harvesting.
Exterior harvesting.
Image: AI SpaceFactory

The Earth habitat, known as Tera, will launch on Indiegogo as early as September.

"We developed these technologies for space, but they have the potential to transform the way we build on Earth," David Malott, the company's CEO and founder, said in a statement. "By using natural, biodegradable materials grown from crops, we could eliminate the building industry's massive waste."