TODO This page needs to be updated because I now wish to locate the base in the Antarctic Dry Valleys so that it's situated on solid rock, given the risk that the Antarctic ice sheet could fully melt. Also, the design will change significantly because the intention now is to tunnel into the rock and build inside the rock, as we will wish to do on the Moon and Mars. Will update soon. SM

This article describes an idea I have for a base in Antarctica designed for research into the science, technology, psychology, economics and politics of interplanetary colonisation. The base is called the Institute for Colonisation and Exploration.

On Earth we currently have several small bases known as Mars Analog Research Stations (MARS's) that have been constructed by the Mars Society. These provide the means for simulating human Mars missions, experimenting with the types of scientific and technological research that will be conducted on Mars, and learning about habitat design, data management, communications, safety protocols, human factors, and so on. Through this program the Mars Society has already generated a large amount of useful results and data which will be invaluable to human space mission designers.

ICE is intended to serve a similar role, except on a much larger scale. Whereas the MARS's are intended as experimental precursors to small human missions of 4-8 people, the ICE is an experimental analog for a permanent human settlement. It is not the intention that ICE necessarily be constructed before we begin work on a Moonbase or Marsbase, but rather that, whenever it's constructed, it will serve a useful purpose on Earth for studying planetary colonisation technologies in an environment which, while immensely challenging, is not quite as dangerous and considerably more accessible.

Many people would prefer that such intermediate steps are completely skipped over. Just a few years ago, a frequently-heard mantra in the Mars Society was "If you want to go to Mars, go to Mars". This has mellowed somewhat, and the Mars Society now seems to accept that we are returning to the Moon, their emphasis having shifted to ensuring that the Moon doesn't become an end in itself, but rather is viewed as a stepping-stone towards Mars.

My view is that intermediate steps are vital to the success of any project as vast in scale, importance and risk as space development. Space development is inherently a quantum leap more difficult than space exploration, and we know from experience that patient development and testing of every aspect of the technology is critical for space exploration. Apollo 11 was successful because of Apollos 4 to 10, which tested every element of the Moon landing mission except the actual landing. Similarly, we should make use of every opportunity to gain relevant experience and information before building a Marsbase. Yes, it will cost more, and yes, it will take more time. But what's the hurry? We've never built anything on another world before, and we shouldn't expect to do it all in one or two decades. It's going to take time.

The Moonbase being spearheaded by NASA will be one of the best precursor projects to a Marsbase. NASA is traditionally very good at publishing the results of their research, and this information will ultimately prove invaluable to Marsbase planners.

But what about a precursor project to the Moonbase?

What if there was somewhere on Earth which presented an extremely challenging environment - almost as challenging as that offered by Moon or Mars - which was remote and hard to get to, but not quite as hard to get to as the Moon or Mars; which was very dry like the Moon and Mars, very cold like Mars (or the Moon during its night), had virtually no food or water, or plants or animals (much like the Moon and Mars), had very little technological infrastructure, and which was also, like the Moon and Mars, immensely valuable and interesting scientifically?

Well, luckily for us, there is such a place, and it's called Antarctica.


Roles of ICE

ICE has multiple roles:

  1. A simulation of a permanent human presence on another world. Developing systems and technologies for overcoming the challenges of living comfortably in Antarctica will simultaneously develop skills, data and insight that will help in overcoming similar problems on the Moon and Mars.
  2. An educational facility. Such a project will be expensive, and possibly even harder to justify than a Moonbase or a Marsbase, unless it provides a useful and valuable service to the community of Earth. This can be achieved by operating ICE as a university, with the associated roles of education and research. It will be our children and grandchildren that will colonise space much more than us - ICE will help to prepare them.
  3. An advanced scientific research facility. With Earth suffering from serious climate change, we need data on planetary processes more than ever, and the two best places to study climate change are at the poles, where the environment is most sensitive. Besides climatology, it will also be an ideal location for studying space-related sciences such as astronomy, our magnetosphere, our atmosphere, extremophiles, meteorites, and many other things.
  4. An advanced technological development facility. For example, on the Moon and Mars we will need methods for obtaining water from very hard ice and permafrost (both the problem and the ice are harder than they look). We can develop and test equipment to do this in Antarctica. Construction is challenging because of the behaviour of concrete and steel in extremely cold and dry conditions. In Antarctica, we can develop new construction technologies, for above-ground, underground, or under-ice, that may also be applied on the Moon and Mars.
  5. An internationally neutral location on Earth for space planning. Every other part of Earth belongs to a nation, and therefore any decisions made at those locations will be inherently suspect. Like Luna and Mars, Antarctica belongs to all the people of Earth, and so will ICE. ICE can be used as a neutral headquarters for international space development planning. Although the location will be hard to get to, it will at least put planners in the right frame of mind.



While a proper survey and study will be necessary to determine the best location for ICE, until that time I have nominally selected a location at about 80°S 90°E.

Map showing location of Institute for Colonisation and Exploration in Antarctica
(click to enlarge)

I've picked this location for a few reasons. Firstly, it is roughly central, surrounded by the Australian coastal bases of Mawson, Davis and Casey, which I hope will provide much of the support, the large Russian bases Molodezhnaya and Mirnyy, the large US base at McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott at the South Pole, and many other international research stations. It is almost equally accessible (or should I say 'inaccessible') by all of the nations operating in Antarctica. At the same time, there's not much else around, an advantage from a simulation point of view, since there won't be much else around in terms of human settlements on the Moon or Mars either, and besides, if we build ICE at an existing station it will lose its identity to a degree, appearing to be part of that installation rather than a standalone base. The closest base is Vostok, about 500km away, a location notorious for being where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded, almost -90°C; the second-closest base is the South Pole. So that should satisfy the remote and challenging environment criteria.

There also appears to be a long line of cliffs running through that area (it's hard to tell, and for the life of me I can't find a good Antarctica atlas on the web - if you can provide more info on the geography of this area, please contact me). It may be good to build ICE at the base of these cliffs to provide some shelter from the wind; also, the cliff-tops may be a good location for a wind farm (wind is an excellent energy source in Antarctica). While we want to select a location as challenging, remote and unEarthlike as possible, when we do build bases on the Moon and Mars, we are going to be selective with regard to the local environment.

Finally, while all national claims to Antarctica are probably (and preferably) void, I have hedged my bets by locating ICE in the Australian Antarctic Territory.


ICE, the Analog Moonbase and Marsbase

How can building and living at ICE teach us about permanent human settlements on Luna or Mars?

The idea of ICE is not to build yet another scientific research facility in Antarctica, a place where only the toughest and most isolationist scientists live and study, growing thick hairy beards to keep their faces warm, and perenially wearing 16 layers of clothes including the fur of several dozen baby seals.


The idea of ICE is to build what's known in space terms as a shirtsleeve environment - a comfortable, technological bubble, where outside is the extreme, deadly, cold, and inside is the warm, snuggly, living quarters, university and research facilities. This is also what we want to achieve on the Moon and Mars. While inside our Marsbase, we don't want to be physically aware that the atmosphere outside is just 700Pa, -60°C, and virtually devoid of oxygen. We want to be able to walk around in our regular clothes, happily smiling, breathing, and not dying.

If we imagine that the visitors and residents of ICE are relatively normal people, (e.g. students, researchers, scientists, engineers - well, sort of normal), then they won't expect to ever have to be exposed to the mind-numbingly low temperatures of central Antarctica. They must be shielded from this environment somehow. Yet at the same time, they must also have the ability to work and explore outside, safely, when they need to.

Environment Control System

The comfortable indoors part is achieved with an environment control system, or ECS. The primary role of an ECS is to control the composition, temperature, pressure and humidity of the air. Temperature control is primarily achieved using electric heating, although direct solar heating (aka sunlight) can offset some of the electricity requirements during the day time. The next most important function is to maintain the freshness of the air, i.e. the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen. While, for safety reasons, it will probably always be necessary to have some mechanical method for "air-scrubbing" (removing CO2 from the air), as on the Space Shuttle and the ISS, in a large volume such as a Marsbase this is ideally achieved using vegetation, which is still the best technology we have for removing carbon from air.

In Antarctica, we have another option for managing air quality, which is to draw in fresh air (low CO2) from outside, exchanging it with stale air (high CO2) from inside. As simple as this may seem, it has a higher energy cost than using plants for air recycling because of the heat being lost as warm, stale air is vented. This energy must be replaced by adding heat to the cold, fresh air coming in. What might work best is a combination of solutions; no doubt there will be some experimentation, which is, of course, what ICE is for.

Warmsuits and Temperature Locks

How will the students and researchers at ICE be able to safely explore the surrounding environment? Warmsuits are spacesuits for Antarctica. Here is another opportunity to develop technology analagous to that which we need for the Moon and Mars.

The technical specifications of a moon- or marssuit are fairly daunting. They need to be able to keep the wearer at a comfortable temperature and humidity, recycle their air, protect them from the external vacuum/cold/heat/dust/radiation/toxic gas/alien life forms, provide communications and information functions, and permit long periods of activity without discomfort.

Because Antarctica's environment is comparatively milder, a warmsuit will not be quite as complex, but it will still need to provide most of the same functions. A warmsuit will keep the wearer warm while still allowing them to move freely about the environment. Like the base itself, the suits will probably need to be closed (or mostly-closed) systems in order to preserve energy, which means incorporating either oxygen tanks or a highly efficient method of air scrubbing.

Outside of ICE, warmsuits may also be useful to other Antarcticans, as well as Arcticans and mountaineers.

At the entrances and exits to ICE, what we then have instead of an air-lock is a temperature lock, designed to minimise the amount of heat that escapes when the doors are opened. When someone enters the temperature lock through the outer door, the air inside the temperature lock will be as cold as the outside air. The outer door is closed, and the cold air in the temperature lock is pumped out and replaced with warm air from inside the base. The person can then safely remove their warmsuit, and the inner door opens so they can enter the complex.

Food and Water

Growing food in Antarctica is pretty hard, and I suspect that most of the food eaten there is imported. So, this is one option for supplying food at ICE.

But this is not the best option.

When we conduct small human missions to the Moon and Mars we will take our food with us, and probably most of our our water as well. However, most designs for permanent settlements include at least one greenhouse for local food production.

One of the most exciting aspects of Moon and Marsbase design, and terraforming, is its retrospective usefulness. For example: logically, if we think we can terraform Mars, then we should also be able to figure out how to grow trees all over Australia. And logically, if we think we can take a greenhouse to Mars and grow food, then we should be able to do the same thing in Antarctica much more easily.

The challenge of keeping an Antarctic greenhouse warm, and the air inside it just right, are the exact same problems we will face on the Moon and Mars. Another challenge is lighting. Terrestrial plants are adapted to a 24-hour diurnal cycle, that is, they have become used to a pattern of around 12 hours of daylight followed by 12 hours of darkness. Arctic and Antarctic plants have adapted to more unusual lighting patterns, but then, there aren't too many species in those areas, although this is mainly due to cold and dryness.

A greenhouse on Mars can make use of the fact that Mars's diurnal cycle is just 40 minutes longer than Earth's, which means Earthly plants should naturally adapt to martian sunlight, despite its intensity being less than half what they're used to. A greenhouse on the Moon, on the other hand, has to contend with a 29.5-day diurnal cycle, with greater extremes of light and heat; 2 weeks of darkness followed by 2 weeks of intense brightness. Earthly species may have great difficulty in adapting to that type of lighting environment, and so, until genetic engineering and selective breeding has solved the problem, within a lunar greenhouse (or habitat) we will probably have to simulate a 24-hour day-night cycle using artificial lighting.

We face a similar problem in Antarctica. The sun stays above the horizon for the whole of the Antarctic summer, because the south pole is tipped towards it, and similarly, during the Antarctic winter, the sun doesn't come up. In a way, the lighting problem in Antarctica is even more extreme than on the Moon, because the periods of light and darkness last for months. Therefore, artificial lighting will also be necessary for Antarctic greenhouses as well.

Water, too, is a challenge. In Antarctica we face the same problem as we will on Mars, Ceres, Ganymede, possibly some places on the Moon and Mercury, and in fact many of the colonisable bodies in our Solar System. Namely, there's plenty of life-giving water, but it's simply frozen rock hard.

There are two main ways that drinkable water can be obtained from frozen ground. The first is to dig up the ice like rock, then melt it and purify it. However, extremely cold ice is harder than ordinary rock and very difficult to dig, and a better solution may be to melt or sublime the ice in-situ, using lenses or heaters, and capture it as water or steam directly from the ground.

Again, solving this problem in Antarctica will be good practice for solving the same problem in other parts of the Solar System.



Institute for Colonisation and Exploration - plan view

As you can see, there are 3 main buildings, one for each of the planets in the Triplanetary System. Each Building has a diameter equal to one 10,000th of the equatorial diameter of the planet it represents. The centres of the circular buildings form the corners of a 45° isoscoles triangle, with 2km between the Earth and Mars Buildings. All the indoor parts of the Buildings (the rings and spokes) are 50m wide. The areas between the rings and spokes are 'green' areas, such as gardens, parks and fields.

The Earth Building has 3 rings, 8 spokes, 17 green areas, and looks something like a spider's web. This is where all the main university buildings are found - the offices, laboratories, lecture theatres, and libraries. The Earth Building is painted blue and green.

The Mars Building has 2 rings, 8 spokes, 9 green areas, and looks more like a wheel. This is the accommodation building. Both rings have apartments and walkways on both sides, which means that the largest rooms are on the outside edge of the outer ring, providing a view of Antarctica, and the smallest rooms are on the inside edge of the inner ring, providing a view into the 'hub' garden. First year students have the smallest rooms; researchers, lecturers and guests have the largest, and the other students take the rooms in between. The Mars Building is painted red and gold.

The Luna Building has 1 ring, 4 spokes, 4 green areas, and looks like a peace symbol. This is the recreation and conference building, where the best shops, bars and restaurants, the movie theatre, the concert hall, and main conference and exhibition hall can be found. The Luna Building is painted white and silver.

Earth's web represents Life, Mars's wheel represents Knowledge, and Luna's symbol represents Peace. Each Building is connected to the two others by 50m wide corridors with thick glass walls. There is an airstrip and spaceport to the south of the base, which is connected to the Mars building by the main entrance (the idea being that most people, on arriving, will need to see their rooms first). The main temperature lock is located partway along this tunnel.

Each Building is nominally 3 storeys high to begin with, but it is expected that it may be necessary to build higher - or deeper - as the complex grows.

(3d models coming soon.)


Construction of ICE

Construction takes place in 3 main stages.

Stage 1. This is the building of the "indoor" areas, as shown in the plan view above, i.e. the rings and spokes. These are sealed and environment-controlled, providing a shirtsleeve environment indoors. In this stage of development, the areas which will become gardens and parks are exposed to the elements, i.e. covered in snow.

Stage 2. The gardens and parks. All of the areas enclosed by rings and spokes - a total of 30, or 31 if you include the large area formed by the triangle - are rooved with a thick layer of glass and sealed. These volumes then become part of the overall environment-controlled volume, and the usable floor area increases dramatically. The parks and gardens are used for crops, greenhouses, sports, exercise, relaxation, reading, concerts, parties, etc. The space between the 3 Buildings formed by the triangle of connecting corridors may also be covered and landscaped, and utilised for more buildings, shops, sporting areas, and so on.

Stage 3. The 3 domes. A geodesic, hemispherical dome is constructed over each of the 3 Buildings, with a height equal to one 10,000th of the polar radius of each planet. This will provide space for birds and possibly other wildlife. Once the domes are built, the rooves that were added to the ground-floor gardens in Stage 2 can be removed, effectively connecting all the green areas into one volume, and allowing room for larger trees. The tops of the buildings (the 50m wide rings and spokes), are developed into broad, landscaped walkways.


Development of the University

ICE will not be an ordinary university, but a practical one. Rather than researching random things, the emphasis for the entire Institute will be on problem-solving; developing solutions for the challenges of colonising space.

  1. Engineering:
    • Structural engineering. At ICE we will study and teach structural engineering for the Moon and Mars, which requires research into construction using iron rather than steel, building in low gravity and extreme temperatures, and with different (or no) wind loads. We will also study space station construction and underground/under-ice construction.
    • Mechanical and mechatronics engineering. There will be an emphasis on space vehicles, rovers and other surface vehicles for the Moon and Mars, martian balloons and gliders, and robotics for space applications.
    • Mining engineering is taught in the context of space mining, addressing questions such as how metals and materials can best be produced from the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, for usage by colonists, or for export to Earth.
    • Chemical engineers at ICE will focus on ISRU (in-situ resource utilisation), and developing fluid processing systems for space settlements.
    • Colonisation engineering. This is a multi-disciplinary field which develops ideas, models and solutions for extraterrestrial base design, including ECS, CELSS (closed-environment life-support system) and spacesuit design.
    • Electrical engineering. Research will focus on clean space-based power production systems, especially solar, wind, and fusion, for the benefit of colonists as well as Earth.
    • Genetic engineers at ICE will develop new species for space agriculture, space ecosystems and terraforming.
    • Planetary engineering. ICE may be one of the only educational facilities in the world where this multi-disciplinary field is researched and taught. At ICE we will develop the plans for terraforming Mars, and for managing and controlling the environment of Earth.
    • Space systems engineering. ICE will be where the next generation of robotic spacecraft and space stations are designed.
    • Agricultural and hydrological engineering. These terms are intended to describe the development of technologies and systems to produce and manage food and water in space, including water management through mining, purification and recycling, and food production in space greenhouses.

  2. Science:
    • Astronomy. Antarctica is a great location for astronomy due to the low air and light pollution, and unique southerly view.
    • Climatology. Antarctica is a great location for studying climate change because of its sensitivity.
    • Biology/astrobiology. Antarctica hosts many kinds of extremophiles (organisms adapted to extreme environments) that can teach us about organisms we might find on Mars, or may even be candidates for introduction to Mars. Antarctica also hosts many unique cold-climate species and ecosystems of great interest biologically.
    • Planetary science. Antarctica is a good location for finding meteorites (the Allan Hills meteorite, famous for being hailed as proof of martian life, was found here) from which we can learn about other planets.
    • Astrophysics, cosmology, orbital mechanics, etc.

  3. Information Technology:
    • Communications technology, especially with regard to space-based systems such as the Interplanetary Internet and the Deep Space Network.
    • Artificial intelligence, a key space technology since robotics and automation will play such a large role in space development.
    • Computer simulation and modelling of planetary environments and human space settlements.

  4. Social Science:
    • Space law. Research into laws concerning ownership of space property, space resource management, international co-operation on space projects, laws unique to the Moon and Mars, etc.
    • Space business. Research into the systems and methodologies of successful space business management and development.
    • Space politics. How countries work together in space, and what types of political entities will be established on the Moon and Mars.
    • Space economics. Research can be conducted into the economies of the Moon and Mars, how they will develop, and how they should be managed.

  5. Management:
    • Construction management. Building ICE will be an advanced exercise in the management and execution of a large, complex and challenging construction project. To make the most of this exercise, the lessons learned can be taught at the university, and used as the basis for planning similar construction projects on the Moon and Mars.