February 1, 2013
Using 3D Printing Technology To Build A Lunar Base
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Three-dimensional printing is growing rampantly and the European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to utilize the up-and-coming technology to build a base on the moon using lunar soil.ESA is partnering with industrial partners, including architects Foster + Partners, to see if the idea of building a lunar habitat on the moon is a feasible one.
Foster + Partners created a dome with a cellular structured wall that could help to shield inhabitants from meteoroids and space radiation during a simulated project.
“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” Scott Hovland of ESA´s human spaceflight team, said in a statement. “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.”
The architecture firm said they are used to designing structures that handle extreme climates on Earth, and using sustainable, local materials to help do so. This same principal could be used for a future lunar base.
Building a base on the moon, using lunar soil as the building blocks, makes the task of getting a spacecraft off the Earth less burdensome, because they would not need to carry as much weight.
Other space agencies are looking into using soil from other planetary bodies to help shed a little lift-off weight for future missions. RedOrbit has previously reported that NASA is even looking into whether regolith would be able to help create a heat shield for spacecraft that would re-enter Earth's atmosphere. This project would see that a spacecraft could leave Earth without a heat shield, and then would assemble one out of lunar soil, or even Martian soil, before returning home with samples.
ESA said that for its new project, it used Monolite's D-Shape printer, which has also been used to create sculptures. Monolite is working on a project to create artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from sea waves.
Monolite founder Enrico Dini said in order to create the lunar base mock-up, they needed to simulate lunar material with magnesium oxide.
"This turns it into ℠paper´ we can print with,” Dini said. “Then for our structural ℠ink´ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid."
He said the current printer builds at a rate of around 6-feet an hour. However, a new printer they are working on will be able to nearly double that amount, which Dini said would be capable of completing an entire building in a week.
The industrial partners used ESA's General Studies Program to take on this new project. During their practicing, they found that basaltic rock, or basalt, from a volcano in central Italy can work as a simulated lunar regolith, because it bears a 99.8 percent resemblance to lunar soil.
They also had to battle known factors for the project, such as working with liquids in a vacuum. Because space creates a vacuum, and the moon has no atmosphere to protect from it, the team had to find a way to keep unprotected liquids from boiling away in the vacuum.
“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," said Giovanni Cesaretti of Italian space research firm Alta SpA.
The simulation project helped the industry understand and tackle many problems that would be faced on the moon. However, more research needs to be done in order to consider factors such as controlling lunar dust.
Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA, said the simulation helped to confirm the basic concept, and with it they were able to assemble a team capable of performing the follow-up work.
Image Below: Illustration of a multi-dome base being constructed on the Moon. Credit: Foster+Partners