The race to build a manned research station on the moon has been slowly picking up steam in recent years, with several developed nations actively studying a variety of construction methods. In just the past few months, the European Space Agency revealed a design involving 3D-printed structures and the Russian Federal Space Agency announced plans for a moon base by 2037. Now international design agency, Architecture Et Cetera (A-ETC), has thrown its hat into the ring with a proposal for SinterHab, a moon base consisting of bubble-like compartments coated in a protective layer of melted lunar dust.
A design team of Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Dr. Ondrej Doule collaborated with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a possible lunar station located near the Shackleton crater of the moon's south pole.
SinterHab is based around NASA's own concept of a mobile 3D printer that uses lunar dust (known as regolith) for material, called the Microwave Sinterator Freeform Additive Construction System (MS-FACS). Because of the unique properties of regolith – particularly its small size and the presence of iron nanoparticles – specific frequencies of microwave radiation can effectively heat the material well past its melting point and reform it into a ceramic-like substance. Researchers at Washington State University even tested this method on some man-made regolith provided by NASA with promising results.
A proposal earlier this year by NASA described creating a solar-powered module that could process regolith in this manner and feed it to a robotic arm equipped with a microwave print head. Mounting all this equipment to an existing ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) would enable lunar soil to be harvested and repurposed into any shape at any location. For SinterHab, the baked soil would form a shield over the base to protect it from radiation and micrometeorites, as well as provide material for nearby roads and landing pads.
The design shares some similarities with the ESA's moon base proposal, but differs in that it doesn't require the regolith to be combined with outside materials or shaped into a single dome.
Instead, several inflatable membranes made of layered Kevlar, Mylar and other materials would be inflated and amassed together much like a cluster of bubbles. This way the sides of each dome could press together to form flat walls, and a base could be constructed using as many chambers as needed. According to A-ETC, a core of five domes could house four to eight people, including space for laboratories.
In fact, the SinterHab designers claim there would be enough space inside the domes to cultivate gardens as part of a bio-regenerative life support system that would revitalize the air and water. Growing plants on the moon is an option that has been explored in the past, most recently during a successful experiment performed in China. The moon base's design calls for a low-maintenance agriculture system, with natural light supplied by a fiber optics system linked to several Fresnel collectors and plasma lamps. According to A-ETC, a series of gardens could also provide fresh food and improve the astronauts' morale.
According to the designers, NASA has been using SinterHab as an example when trying to raise funding for its 3D printing technology, and development on "SinterHab 2.0" has already begun. We may still be decades away from seeing a functional moon base, but at least we can already start to see what a future lunar colony might look like.