A BIG Mars simulation city in the UAE desert

Uber-cool architects Bjarke Ingels Group have been signed up to build a space simulation city in the UAE desert, the largest ever such project. Covering 1.9 million square feet, the Mars Science City aims to provide a realistic model to simulate life on the surface of the eponymous planet.

As well as BIG, the Mars Science City team includes scientists, engineers and designers from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre and Dubai Municipality.

The AED 500 million Mars Science City was described by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid as an “extraordinary national project”. The announcement is part of the UAE’s Mars 2117 project, launched by Sheikh Mohammed in February at the World Government Summit in Dubai with the explicit aim of building a “miniature city on Mars” in the next 100 years.

At the time Sheikh Mohammed described Mars 2117 as “a seed that we plant today” the benefits of which will be reaped by future generations. “The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.”

A year ago Sheikh Mohammed gave approval to start manufacturing the prototypes for of the UAE’s Mars Hope probe, which is scheduled to reach the Red Planet in 2021.

The UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality …

The Mars Science City structure will reportedly be “the most sophisticated building the world”. There aren’t many details yet, just lots of sci-fi renders from BIG; but it will consist of several domes, with innovative construction techniques – lots of 3D printing – and much use of novel materials, for instance for solar radiation resistance. There’s less atmosphere on Mars than here on earth, so there’s also less protection from radiation; and anyone who has experienced the UAE in August knows that minimising solar radiation could be a winner on earth too.

Altogether it looks to be an interesting combination of theoretical and practical research with education, inspiration and soft-power nationalism. Mars Science City will have advanced laboratories to simulate conditions on the red planet; a by-product will surely be usable tools and techniques for alleviating some of the problems we have here on earth, notably in food production, water and energy security.

The promotional material suggests that those labs will be staffed by “the best scientific minds from around the world”, though there’s no word yet about how this will work (some kind of Masdar-like institute? A new University of Mars on Earth? A classic public-private initiative as favoured for many other UAE projects?).

Upskilling the national workforce and motivating the young will be another goal. Generations of Emirati scientists could be developed by the project, and Mars Science City will also house a museum of space achievements that will have educational areas particularly intended to engage the young. Its walls will be 3-D printed from local sand, which is presumably similar to the most abundant building material available on Mars.

The Mars Science City will have to test several agricultural systems that minimise the need for the resources Mars famously lacks, like water and humus-rich soil. Recycling systems for waste and water will also be key.

There are also plans for a team to live in a simulated Martian environment in one of the domes for around a year at a time. They’ll work on developing the kind of low- and high-tech self-sufficiency that will keep humans healthy and well-fed during a true Mars mission.

There’s no official schedule for the project yet, and we don’t know where Mars Science City will be sited. The UAE’s history is littered with grand but unbuilt projects that suffered from economic hiccups – Zaha Hadid’s concert halls in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, anyone? – so some scepticism might be reasonable. But you have to applaud the ambition; and this one has Sheikh Mohammed’s fingerprints all over it, so Mars Science City looks like it will actually happen.

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