Why Build a Moon Base When You Can Just Print It?

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Multi-dome lunar base being constructed, based on the 3D printing concept. Once assembled, the inflated domes are covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith by robots to help protect the occupants against space radiation and micrometeoroids. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

Multi-dome lunar base being constructed, based on the 3D printing concept. Once assembled, the inflated domes are covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith by robots to help protect the occupants against space radiation and micrometeoroids. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it from local materials. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil.

“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA.

“Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

Foster + Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts.

A hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of bird bones – provides a good combination of strength and weight.

The base’s design was guided in turn by the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, with a 1.5 tonne building block produced as a demonstration.

Multi-dome lunar base built with 3D construction. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

Multi-dome lunar base built with 3D construction. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” added 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.”

“As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials,” remarked Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group. “Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”

The UK’s Monolite supplied the D-Shape printer, with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 6 m frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material.

3D ‘printouts’ are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves.

For ESA's 3D-printed lunar base concept, Foster+Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

For ESA’s 3D-printed lunar base concept, Foster+Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

“First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” explained Monolite founder Enrico Dini.

“Then for our structural ‘ink’ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid.

“Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 m per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 m per hour, completing an entire building in a week.”

Italian space research firm Alta SpA worked with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna on adapting 3D printing techniques to a Moon mission and ensuring process quality control. The effect of working in a vacuum was also assessed.

The base is first unfolded from a tubular module that can be easily transported by space rocket. An inflatable dome then extends from one end of this cylinder to provide a support structure for construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a robot-operated 3D printer (right) to create a protective shell. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

The base is first unfolded from a tubular module that can be easily transported by space rocket. An inflatable dome then extends from one end of this cylinder to provide a support structure for construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a robot-operated 3D printer (right) to create a protective shell. (Credit: Foster + Partners)

“The process is based on applying liquids but, of course, unprotected liquids boil away in vacuum,” said Giovanni Cesaretti of Alta.

“So we inserted the 3D printer nozzle beneath the regolith layer. We found small 2 mm-scale droplets stay trapped by capillary forces in the soil, meaning the printing process can indeed work in vacuum.”

Simulated lunar regolith is produced for scientific testing by specialist companies, typically sold by the kilogram. But the team required many tonnes for their work.

“As another useful outcome, we discovered a European source of simulated lunar regolith,” added Enrico.

“Basaltic rock from one volcano in central Italy turns out to bear a 99.8% resemblance to lunar soil.”

“This project took place through ESA’s General Studies Programme, used to look into new topics,” Laurent commented.

“We have confirmed the basic concept, and assembled a capable team for follow-on work.”

Factors such as controlling lunar dust – hazardous to breathe in – and thermal factors will require further study.

3D printing works best at room temperature but over much of the Moon temperatures vary enormously across days and nights lasting two weeks each. For potential settlement, the lunar poles offer the most moderate temperature range.

  • Paul451

    Microwave sintering is probably better than using liquid binders. The regolith is already mixed with fine metal shavings from asteroid impacts, it merrily absorbs microwaves, heating the surrounding silicates/etc into a rock or glass-like material. Already been tested on Earth, using standard aerospace microwave emitters, and works fine in a vacuum.

    As for “Why Build a Moon Base When You Can Just Print It?”, because you’d have to land so much infrastructure on the moon to print out even the simplest base, that you might as well just land the damn hab itself. Manufacturing on-site on the moon only works for significant construction. A single base probably isn’t anywhere need enough to justify the added risk and development cost.

  • Paul451

    Microwave sintering is probably better than using liquid binders. The regolith is already mixed with fine metal shavings from asteroid impacts, it merrily absorbs microwaves, heating the surrounding silicates/etc into a rock or glass-like material. Already been tested on Earth, using standard aerospace microwave emitters, and works fine in a vacuum.

    As for “Why Build a Moon Base When You Can Just Print It?”, because you’d have to land so much infrastructure on the moon to print out even the simplest base, that you might as well just land the damn hab itself. Manufacturing on-site on the moon only works for significant construction. A single base probably isn’t anywhere need enough to justify the added risk and development cost.

  • Paul451

    Microwave sintering is probably better than using liquid binders. The regolith is already mixed with fine metal shavings from asteroid impacts, it merrily absorbs microwaves, heating the surrounding silicates/etc into a rock or glass-like material. Already been tested on Earth, using standard aerospace microwave emitters, and works fine in a vacuum.

    As for “Why Build a Moon Base When You Can Just Print It?”, because you’d have to land so much infrastructure on the moon to print out even the simplest base, that you might as well just land the damn hab itself. Manufacturing on-site on the moon only works for significant construction. A single base probably isn’t anywhere need enough to justify the added risk and development cost.

  • Paul451

    Microwave sintering is probably better than using liquid binders. The regolith is already mixed with fine metal shavings from asteroid impacts, it merrily absorbs microwaves, heating the surrounding silicates/etc into a rock or glass-like material. Already been tested on Earth, using standard aerospace microwave emitters, and works fine in a vacuum.

    As for “Why Build a Moon Base When You Can Just Print It?”, because you’d have to land so much infrastructure on the moon to print out even the simplest base, that you might as well just land the damn hab itself. Manufacturing on-site on the moon only works for significant construction. A single base probably isn’t anywhere need enough to justify the added risk and development cost.

  • Robert Gishubl

    I would suggest a mixture of initial habitat and printer landed and then additional small components built on site to make more mining equipment and spare parts for worn/broken components. It would certainly take a long time and much development to be able to build a complete habitat from in-situ resources. Definately expansion of the initial habitat would progressivly use more in-situ resources and manufacturing capability but initially most complex components would come from earth as modules.
    The image used in the story looks like large modules landed and joined together then covered in in-situ regolith for thermal and radiation shielding, a mix of built components and in-situ resources.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Burkey-Devitt/100001226532768 Burkey Devitt

    How about fixing some of the problems here on earth, because we’re on track to lose the oceans. And if that happens, we are done.