The European Space Agency (ESA) and its industrial partners, including architects Foster + Partners, are working together to determine the feasibility of using a 3D printer to construct a lunar base from local materials.
“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said project lead Laurent Pambaguian in a news release from the ESA. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”
London-based Foster + Partners constructed a weight-bearing “catenary” dome design with a cellular structured wall to protect astronauts against micrometeoroids and harmful space radiation. The base’s design was created using the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, and produced a 1.5 ton building block as a model.
“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said 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.”
Using local materials will be key to reducing the development costs of a lunar base. The result will be a four-person dwelling on the south pole of the Moon, where there is more light, with room for further expansion, according to the research firm.
“As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials,” said Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group. “Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”
Monolite provided 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. According to the ESA, 3D “printouts” are created layer by layer. Building a lunar base would be an entirely new challenge for Monolite, as the company usually uses its printer to create sculptures.
“First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” said 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.”
In 2009, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) estimated the cost of an international lunar base. The CSIS Space Initiatives made an estimate, based on available data, that the likely cost of constructing an international lunar base would be approximately $35 billion, and operating the base would cost about $7.35 billion annually. CSIS notes that their estimate is based on the assumption that the lunar base could host a four-person crew and remain unmanned between missions to the moon.
CSIS points out that after the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a commission reviewing U.S. plans for future space exploration suggested abandoning the goal of building a base on the moon. The idea of abandoning a return to the moon was put forth primarily due to budget concerns.
Would an international effort to build a lunar base be more successful, cost less money and take less time?