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3D-printed lunar base may be on the way

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January 31, 2013

A research consortium set up by the European Space Agency is looking into the possibility ...

A research consortium set up by the European Space Agency is looking into the possibility of 3D-printing a lunar base (Image: Foster + Partners)

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London-based international architectural firm Foster + Partners has designed some pretty impressive structures over the past several years, including the Virgin Galactic spaceport, Apple’s “spaceship” campus, and the Kuwait International Airport. Today, however, the firm announced its involvement in a project that’s considerably more ambitious than any of those – as part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency (ESA), it will be exploring the possibility of 3D printing a lunar base for astronauts.

Given how awkward and expensive it would be to transport building materials from Earth, it certainly seems like it would make more sense to build lunar structures using the soil – known as regolith – that’s already present on the Moon. The project is aimed at developing methods of doing just that, using a robot-operated 3D printer to process the regolith on-site.

That said, the four-occupant base’s internal domed structure would be manufactured on Earth, and sent to the Moon folded up in a tubular module aboard a rocket. Once that module arrived at the building site near the Moon’s south pole – where there would be almost perpetual sunlight, and thus less severe temperature extremes – the dome would be inflated, extending out from one end of the tube as it did so.

The inflatable dome, which would serve as the base's underlying structure (Image: Foster +...

The inflatable dome, which would serve as the base's underlying structure (Image: Foster + Partners)

Once the dome was fully inflated, the 3D printer would be used to cover it with successive layers of a regolith-based material. That substance would form a stone-like protective shell, shielding the inhabitants from things like meteorites, gamma rays, and drastic fluctuations in temperature.

Using an existing large-scale D-Shape 3D printer, a 1.5-tonne (1.65-ton) block of the building material has already been built from a mixture of simulated regolith (actually terrestrial basaltic rock), magnesium oxide, and a binding salt. Other consortium partners – Italian space research firm Alta SpA and Pisa-based Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna university – have conducted 3D printing experiments in a vacuum chamber, to simulate the lunar environment. They determined that it is indeed possible, although factors such as the control of lunar dust still need to be addressed.

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

In a similar but unrelated project, scientists at Washington State University have also used simulated regolith to 3D-print objects.

Sources: Foster + Partners, ESA via PopSci

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
10 Comments

lots of cool designs but no actual buildings ... If I'm a lunar worker I'm going to want something NOT built by a 3D printer to keep me alive ...

I'm thinking a lunar bulldozer would be a better investment ...

Jeffrey J Carlson
31st January, 2013 @ 02:45 pm PST

Seems like what you'd really want is a robot with a cement mixer. Or maybe just a bulldozer and a shovel.

A builder drone is a good idea, though. It could be teleoperated from Earth, and function as a force multiplier for actual astronauts.

Jon A.
31st January, 2013 @ 03:10 pm PST

I would just print a Cat D3 with the 3D - voila!

Mark A
31st January, 2013 @ 05:43 pm PST

Without the binder, they're not going to be printing anything, and it's going to be way loads cheaper to send a pre-built lightweight structure up there, than tank after tank of binding chemicals.

That otehr gizmag dude with the huge mirror who was robo-sintering stuff out of sand in the desert - now *that* makes a whole lot more sense - sans atmosphere, I'm guessing they'd have plenty of sunlight up there to fuse rock with.

(Think this is what you're referring to: http://www.gizmag.com/solar-sinter-3d-printer/19046/ Ed.)

christopher
31st January, 2013 @ 07:04 pm PST

The top layer of the moons surface is radioactive from the cosmic bombardment so only use it for the outer most layer of shielding.

lunar dust is highly abrasive making tracked vehicles a bad idea.

Slowburn
31st January, 2013 @ 07:34 pm PST

It 's the first concept technically correct and feasible for a stable base on the moon.

The idea of carrying on the satellite a mold to build habitable modules with local resources is the best.

This technology could be worked on Earth for the creation of bio-low-cost housing, if we want a return to basics.

Germano Pecoraro
1st February, 2013 @ 01:57 am PST

Salt as a binder? Sounds great until the first time it rains!

Billy Sharpstick
1st February, 2013 @ 08:28 am PST

My guess is that an actual moon base would be built in stages.

Something like this, an inflatable habitat module covered in moon dust for rad shielding, would be your initial foothold, followed quickly by a deeper habitat that would protect from periods of intense radiation.

After that, what you'd really want is a tunneling robot, so you can go down a few meters into the rock and start hollowing out rooms and corridors where solar storms will never reach you.

Jon A.
1st February, 2013 @ 08:48 am PST

I thought the idea was to build via stereo-lithography - melting moon dust and depositing the molten material via computer nozzles/jets in thin layers - depositing successive layers - much as we do in controlled environments on Earth today.

Larry
1st February, 2013 @ 03:59 pm PST

Finally they got it, finally someone uses a solar concentrator to 3d print on another planet using the sand. Good job guys on finally figuring it out.

Aaron Baker
1st February, 2013 @ 10:24 pm PST
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