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Can we build a moon colony by using 3D printers?

It seems a bit crazy, but building a lunar colony may someday come down to how 3D printers evolve over the coming decade.

According to a newly published report, humans may someday build colonies on the moon by using 3D printers that draw from the natural resources found on the lunar surface.

The report, published by the London-based Foster + Partners, finds 3D printers may spell the difference between a successful lunar colony and failed one.

“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said Laurent Pambaguian, ESA project lead, said in a statement released Friday. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

The report, which was commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA), examined whether 3D printer technology could provide humans with an extra set of arms when building structures on the lunar surface. The firm found that by relying on weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome structures with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, they were able to shelter astronauts (or moon colonists) from the harsh environment of space.  According to Foster + Partners, the design largely parallels those used in extreme climates on Earth.

The structure itself is already within the confines of what current 3D printers are capable of producing. The firm noted that the moon’s own soil properties largely dictated the design elements.  While the notion of launching a series of 3D printers to the moon may seem far-fetched, the firm did produce a 1.5 ton building block, part of a demonstration to convince the public that the plan has a basis in reality.

While the design and the report itself as seen as a major set forward, challenges still remain for the team. According to Foster + Partners, temperature variables on the Moon could prove problematic for 3D printing.  Designing a control that prevents the kicking up too much lunar dust, which is hazardous to breathe — is also seen as necessary.

The report comes as a number of nations have set their respective sights on the moon. China and India have already announced plans to send missions to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. Meanwhile, the U.S. space agency NASA is reportedly working on plans to send astronauts back to the moon and possibly even to build an orbiting base around Earth’s satellite. It has long been rumored that the space agency has been considering constructing a floating Moon base that would serve as a launching site for manned missions to Mars and other destinations more distant than any humans have traveled to so far. Already the space agency has increased its focus on the moon, launching a pair of probes in late 2011 with the intention of gathering information on the lunar surface and its gravitational field. The probes were directed to crash into a pair of mountains in late 2012, providing NASA with additional data on the moon’s soil composition.

That said, firm plans for building a lunar colony remain far off in the future. The idea did seem to gain some traction during the 2012 Republican presidential primary race, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed a plan that would see the U.S. build a base by the year 2020. The plan was widely regarded as unfeasible and too costly. Ironically, the most feasible plans for colonies outside of Earth actually center around Mars — a planet much farther away than the moon. A number of private companies have announced plans to begin sending astronauts to Mars with the hope of founding a human colony on the Red Planet. The Netherlands-based Mars One, which has presented the most ambitious plans to date, earlier this week announced that it has secured investments that will help fund conceptual design studies and its astronaut selection program. Similar private ventures have also announced receiving venture capital backing.

In fact, the biggest hurdle facing the building of a lunar colon may actually be Earth-based. Funding for many of NASA’s lunar programs have been largely slashed. President George W. Bush proposed in 2004 to return to the moon, going so far as to provide funding for the space agency’s next generation of spacecraft, the Constellation program. That program was subsequently canceled by the Obama administration in 2009, while a commission, appointed by President Obama and chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, examined whether a return to the moon was financially practical. The commission ultimately determined that future missions to the moon would require an additional $3 billion in funding, a hurdle unlikely to be overcome in today’s fiscal climate.

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