A technologically viable model for a Mars city, as imagined by a Catalan-led team
2020-10-19 12:00:00
A proposal for a city on planet Mars by a Catalan-led team was presented on Saturday, 17 October 2020, in the final of the Mars Society competition 

The team is led by researchers from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) at the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE, CSIC), the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC), the School of Industrial, Aerospace and Audiovisual Engineering of Terrassa (ESEIAAT- UPC) and the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona (ICCUB), together with the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM, CSIC).

Using the available scientific knowledge about the environment on Mars, the proposal touches on all aspects of human life: from settling, architecture and life support to arts, economics and political systems.

The project team will now look for industry, academic and private partners to make further steps in making the martian city a feasible option for future human settling on the Red Planet.

Welcome to Nüwa, capital city on Mars. Human settlers would live here and in four other vertical cities on the cliffs of the Red Planet, which provide protection from radiation, but also exposure to sunlight. The buildings inside the cliffs would be mix-use, able to hold 200,000 to 250,000 people, and comprising areas for living and working, lush gardens in the so-called Green-Domes, “public squares” at the bottom of the cliff, underground sports arenas and music halls, as well as areas to lodge art displays. Settlers would eat a diet based 50% on agriculture, 20% microalgae, and 30% coming from animal meat, insects, mushrooms and cellular meat. The work per person should be eight times higher than for the average human on Earth, but this can be sorted by imposing automation, standardisation and the use of Artificial Intelligence methods at the design level. Water would be mainly extracted from clays and the oxygen mainly produced by crops and microalgae. After death, the biomass of animals, humans and plants would be incorporated back into the system, but loved ones would be able to keep a small, compressed sample. Mars would eventually become a democracy, with its own constitution and body of law. Each citizen would be a shareholder of Mars’ cities. Society would evolve to a model based on community and sustainability.

This is how a city on Mars would look like and function according to a team of international professionals led by catalan researchers. Using knowledge about the geology, geography and atmosphere of the Red Planet, as well as complex human sociological and psychological research, they have imagined a sustainable evidence-based and technologically viable model for life on Mars. 

Video: Nuwa City Teaser
Credit: CSIC / ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Sebastian Rodriguez, Gonzalo Rojas)

Their proposal was presented in the Mars City State Design competition of the Mars Society, the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organisation dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars. The team presented the project on Saturday, 17 October 2020, during the Mars Society Convention after being selected among the 10 finalists from over 175 submitted proposals. Even though they did not win the award, the team stands convinced that the sustainable and human centered approach to the exploration of space is the right way to go. Therefore, they will continue to pursue industry and academic partnerships to bring to life some of the core concepts for humanity’s next habitat on Mars.

This design proposal was initiated and promoted by SONet (the Sustainable Off-world Network), which is a community of mainly European professionals interested in multidisciplinary approaches to sustainable exploration of space. The project is led by researchers from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC  — Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya) at the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE, CSIC), the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), the School of Industrial, Aerospace and Audiovisual Engineering of Terrassa (ESEIAAT - UPC), and its core architectural & urban planning has been led by the ABIBOO studio.  It also has important contributions from members of the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM, CSIC) and the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona (ICCUB). Participants from other countries include researchers and professionals from the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, USA and Argentina.

“The challenge for the team was to design a settlement with all the welfare of a modern city that was also capable of obtaining all resources locally, and rapidly gaining its financial and logistic independence from Earth”, declared Guillem Anglada-Escudé, Ramón y Cajal researcher of ICE and coordinator of the team. The project touches on all aspects of human life: from the materials used to build settlements and the mechanisms for ensuring oxygen and other life support systems to money, art, childcare, education, political system, workload, death and even inheritance on Mars. 

Image: Nuwa Tempe Mensa Aerial view
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Gonzalo Rojas)

“From a real world architect point of view, designing a functional urban development, while working with the constraints of an alien world was both a mind-boggling and an extremely enriching experience”, declared Alfredo Muñoz, cofounder of ABIBOO studio and leader of the urban and architectural development team. “We cannot wait to keep evolving this first design, and also identify radical new solutions that shall work on Earth as well”.

“The project team will now look for industry, academic and private partners to make further steps in making the martian city a feasible option for future human settling on the Red Planet. “In such a big endeavour, cooperation between experts in many different areas is needed,” explained Miquel Sureda, lecturer of aeronautical engineering at ESEIAAT- UPC. “The success of Nüwa’s project in the Mars Society competition can help SONet gain visibility and attract members and resources.”

"The world has changed radically since we started in March, and will continue to change at forced rates”, concludes Anglada-Escudé. “Meanwhile —he adds— the problems of Earth's sustainability have not disappeared. Although we won't be coming to Mars next year or in twenty years, if after all it serves to inspire Catalan or all-over-the-world professionals and young people working together for a more sustainable world, we have already won."

The next immediate step is seek funding to perform a new design iteration and begin conversations to develop an Earth demonstrator, which should also be used to develop sustainability technologies and as an inspirational element to promote sciences among young and not so young people. 

Image: Sonet_Nuwa-Large-Parks at the Valley
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Gonzalo Rojas)

Life on Mars in more detail

Mars has hundreds of cliffs, many with inclinations higher than 45 degrees. A cliff provides a broad, structurally stable “vertical” surface, which is a unique opportunity to create a vertical city inside the cliff, providing all-day protection from radiation, while still having many perforations on the face of the cliff wall to bring indirect sunlight inside. The urban and architectural solution achieves also an efficient use of resources and a low-cost solution for the skin of buildings that solves the difference in pressure between the inside and the outside air. Also, a sustainable settlement must integrate local conditions, dense enough to minimise its environmental and economic impact. 

Nüwa is the capital, with a population between 200,000 and 250,000 people. Its name has its roots in the mythological Chinese goddess that is the protector of Humans, who melted five stones to give robust societal pillars. 

Image: Nuwa arrival view by Rover
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Gonzalo Rojas)

Five locations instead of one are chosen to improve resilience, long term easy access to resources and to add mobility options to the citizens of Mars. The first city is Nüwa, while Fuxi is the second urban center, in the same region but 170 km to the North-East. Although the project divides human settlement into five cities, it offers a highly-scalable and flexible solution that can be implemented in many locations across Mars.

The proposal locates farming, energy generation, and their related industrial processing on the Mesa, the substantial flat area on the top of the cliff. Agricultural and energy production facilities require direct access to sun radiation but do not need a shield from radiation, as only maintenance personnel and robotics will be operating there.

The landscape is a fundamental element in Nüwa and its sister cities. The location itself, being able to live inside a cliff, is a powerful emotional experience. The integration of the buildings with the landscape transforms the city into a land-art, creating a unique identity for its citizens.

Image: Nuwa Green Dome and Tunnel Section
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Sebastian Rodriguez)

All the cities would have access to chemical elements such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Chlorine, which are crucial resources to develop fertilisers and produce aggregates for construction.

Sustainability, but especially self-sustainable development is at the core of the Nüwa concept. For being self-sustainable, a settlement on Mars needs to be able to obtain all resources locally. After a short initial phase relying on capital investments and supplies from Earth, the system should be able to sustain its growth with local resources only.

Crop cultivation would be the main food production source, providing 50% of the human diet, while processing CO2 into O2 and taking part in the water processing system. Although crops can provide a tastier and more varied diet than microalgae, those are more efficient in terms of space and resource utilisation, while also contributing to atmosphere revitalisation and water management. Thus, microalgae would be the principal component of the human diet.

Typical farm animals such as pigs, chicken, or fish would also be included, but would represent a small part of the human diet: such animals are very inefficient, but provide a high psychological value. 

Image: Nuwa Green Dome view 2
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Sebastian Rodriguez)

Similarly as we have on Earth, there will be a water-cycle in Nüwa. Humans, animals, and plants will add water to the atmosphere through respiration/perspiration/transpiration. The preferred water extraction method would exploit clays, which are hydrated minerals with about 5-10% of mass in water that is released upon heating them up to about 400°C. A polar Martian city should be able to access frozen water from the surface, thus requiring much less mineral processing.

Both the microalgae and crop photosynthesis would produce the oxygen required to replace the one consumed by humans and animals. Besides those food-producing-plants, green areas in the human spaces will also contribute to the reduction of the carbon dioxide levels and production of oxygen.

Early childhood education consists of social services from newborn to preschool age (i.e., up to 5 years old), allowing the parent to keep engaged with their tasks. School’s curricula should be generalist in the sense of learning skills, and training in the usage & triage of information rather than mere acquisition of knowledge. The Mars Technical Universities (MTU) shall be focused on preparing specialists to the most critical technical and management tasks, provide support to innovators, and enable basic research and exploration projects together with Earth’s larger resources.

Image: Nuwa-Urban-Interior View
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Sebastian Rodriguez)

Arts will be a critical part of Society on Mars. Each Macro-Building includes Art-Domes to encourage and inspire the citizens of Nüwa and its sister cities. Recreation facilities engage citizens in physical activities such as sports, games and fitness, social activities, camping, and arts & crafts activities.

The vertical transportation inside the cliff is carried out with elevators. At the base and top of the Wall, a system of light trains and buses is used to move in the longitudinal direction of the cliff. City to city transport is done with trains of buses/ wagons on paved roads. 

Citizens will be monitored through a Personal Monitoring Device, for localisation, health purposes and activation of safety protocols, but data gathering will be governed by a clear legislation. There will be approximately 1500 hospital beds per city. When a person dies, its body will be composted, or incinerated in a dedicated Solar Concentrator Tower and their biomass incorporated back into the system. Only a part of the money and shares will be inherited and the rest returned to the city. 

For getting from Earth to Mars, a regular shuttle service should be able to function, with launch windows opening approximately every 26 months and lasting between one and three months. For settlers, one Mars ticket will have an approx. price tag of 300k EUR, and it includes: a one-way trip, one residential unit  of ~25-35 m2/person, full access to common facilities, all life support services & food, and a binding work contract to devote between 60% and 80% of their work time to tasks assigned by the city.

In an initial phase, the Mars colony would start like a corporation managed by Earth governments and bodies and inhabitants would have the status of workers. It should then enter a phase of exponential growth, and elect its representatives in a Mars City council, which shall deal with local matters & development logistics. It’s inhabitants would now be citizens and receive income as shareholders of the city. Once it reaches a population of 500.000 people, it would gear towards an independent society governed by its own Constitution and laws.

On Mars, Earth money will be replaced by micros, a currency that can be used to purchase part of the surplus infrastructure from the Mars city council, providing intrinsic asset value to the coin. Ownership of the currency will be limited, as to mitigate social inequality. 

One of the main ideas of the NÜWA concept is social equality: all citizens are considered shareholders of the city, which in turn provides for all the basic needs. All the people are part of the city, and the city is everyone.

Image: Nuwa Residential quarters
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Sebastian Rodriguez)

Collaboration list

Project Coordination, Economic model & High-level concepts: Guillem Anglada-Escudé, Ph.D.; RyC fellow in Astrophysics; Institute for Space Science/ CSIC & Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya (EU)

Co-coordination. Space, Earth-Mars transportation & Socio-economics: Miquel Sureda, Ph.D.; Space Science and Technology Research Group, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya & Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya (EU)

Life Support, Biosystems & Human factors: Gisela Detrell, Ph.D; Institute for Space Systems, Universität Stuttgart (EU)

Design. Architecture & Urbanism: Design Strategy & Coordination: ABIBOO Studio (USA)

Preliminary Analysis & Urban Configuration: Alfredo Muñoz (USA); Owen Hughes Pearce (UK)

Detailed Architecture & Urban Design: Alfredo Muñoz (USA); Gonzalo Rojas (Argentina); Engeland Apostol (UK); Sebastián Rodríguez (Argentina); Verónica Florido (UK)

Identity & Graphic Design: Verónica Florido (UK); Engeland Apostol (UK)

Video Direction & CGI: Sebastián Rodríguez (Argentina); Gonzalo Rojas (Argentina)

Mars Materials & Location: Ignasi Casanova, Ph.D.; Prof. Civil and Environmental Engineering; Institute of Energy Technologies (INTE), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (EU)

Manufacturing, Advanced Biosystems & Materials: David Cullen; Prof. of Astrobiology and Space Biotechnology; Space Group, University of Cranfield (UK)

Energy & Sustainability: Miquel Banchs i Piqué; School of Civil Engineering & Surveying, University of Portsmouth (UK)

Mining & Excavation systems: Philipp Hartlieb; Prof. in Excavation Engineering, Montan Universitaet Leoben (EU)

Social Services & Life Support Systems: Laia Ribas, Ph.D.; RyC fellow in Biology, Institut de Ciències del Mar/CSIC, (EU)

Mars Climate modeling & Environment: David de la Torre; Dept. of Physics, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (EU)


Jordi Miralda Escudé (ICREA Prof. in Astrophysics - Ground Transport, UB, EU); Rafael Harillo Gomez-Pastrana (Lawyer, - Political Organization & Space law, EU); Lluis Soler (Ph.D. in Chemistry - Chemical processes, UPC, EU); Paula Betriu (Topographical analysis, - UPC, EU); Uygar Atalay (Location, temperature & Radiation analysis, UPC, EU); Pau Cardona (Earth-Mars Transportation, UPC, EU); Oscar Macia (Earth-Mars Transportation, UPC, EU); Eric Fimbinger (Resource Extraction & Conveyance, Montanuniversität Leoben, EU); Stephanie Hensley (Art Strategy in Mars, USA); Carlos Sierra (Electronic Engineering, ICE/CSIC, EU); Elena Montero (Psychologist, EU); Robert Myhill (Mars science – U. Bristol, UK); Rory Beard (Artificial Intelligence, UK)


CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas); ABIBOO Studio; UPC (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya); Cranfield University; University of Stuttgart; IEEC (Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya); Montan University Leoben; Institut de Ciencies del Mar; University of Portsmouth.


- ABIBOO Studio
- The Sustainable Offworld Network (SONet) 
- Mars Society

More information

The Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC  — Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya) promotes and coordinates space research and technology development in Catalonia for the benefit of society. IEEC fosters collaborations both locally and worldwide and is an efficient agent of knowledge, innovation and technology transfer. As a result of over 20 years of high-quality research, done in collaboration with major international organisations, IEEC ranks among the best international research centers, focusing on areas such as: astrophysics, cosmology, planetary science, and Earth Observation. IEEC’s engineering division develops instrumentation for ground- and space-based projects, and has extensive experience in working with private or public organisations from the aerospace and other innovation sectors.  

IEEC is a private non-profit foundation, governed by a Board of Trustees composed of Generalitat de Catalunya and four other institutions that each have a research unit, which together constitute the core of IEEC R&D activity: the University of Barcelona (UB) with the research unit ICCUB — Institute of Cosmos Sciences; the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) with the research unit CERES — Center of Space Studies and Research; the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) with the research unit CTE — Research Group in Space Sciences and Technologies; the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) with the research unit ICE — Institute of Space Sciences. IEEC is integrated in the CERCA network (Centres de Recerca de Catalunya).


Cover: Nuwa Cliff and Valley Cover Image
Credit: ABIBOO Studio / SONet (Gonzalo Rojas)


IEEC Communication Office
Barcelona, Spain

Ana Montaner Pizà

Institute of Space Sciences (ICE - CSIC)
Barcelona, Spain

Guillem Anglada-Escudé

Technical University of Catalonia (UPC)
Barcelona, Spain

Miquel Sureda Anfres
Attached Documents
Generalitat de CatalunyaUniversitat de BarcelonaUniversitat Autònoma de BarcelonaUniversitat Politècnica de CatalunyaConsejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasCentres de Recerca de Catalunya