Setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it with materials taken from the Moon itself. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with European Space Agency (ESA) to test the feasibility of 3D printing on this scale.
“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.”
To do this, Foster + Partners have devised a unique dome-shaped building design, with a cellular structured wall to shield against space radiation and micrometeoroids. The hollow closed-cell structure that is printed, reminiscent of bird bones, provides a good combination of strength and weight, as the 1.5 tonne demonstrator block shows.
“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team commented. “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.”
Printing will be done using a D-Shape printer, supplied by UK's Monolite, who have previously experimented with making entire buildings on Earth. Currently, their technology is printing at a rate of 2m per hour, with their next-generation design hoping to complete a building in a week. Monolite founder Enrico Dini provides insight into the process:
“First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” he explained. “Then for our structural ‘ink’ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid."
Of course, a radically different set of parameters have to be taken into account when printing on the moon: the wildly shifting climate, hazardous lunar dust, and the fact we can't actually test this with actual lunar material. But it makes for a fascinating use for 3D printing technology, and I welcome anything that gets us closer to manned missions to the moon.