x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The European Space Agency is working on building bases on the Moon from 3D printed lunar soil.

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. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster+Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil. Photo credit: European Space Agency
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. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster+Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil. Photo credit: European Space Agency

BERLIN // The concept of housing on the Moon is futuristic enough in itself. But the idea of printing those houses from local materials is the stuff of science fiction. Or so one might think.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed up with the renowned architects Foster + Partners, who designed the planned Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, to devise a lunar base from 3D printed lunar soil.

ESA wants to “print” building blocks by adding layer upon layer of lunar material mixed with magnesium oxide and made solid with binding salt. Using local soil would remove the need to transport heavy construction materials from Earth.

Foster + Partners devised a multi-dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, says ESA.

“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” says Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

A 1.5-tonne building block has already been produced as a demonstration, using simulated lunar soil.

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

Monolite, a British company that uses its printer to create sculptures and artificial reefs to preserve beaches from waves, supplied the printer with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 6-metre frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material.

“Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 metres per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 metres per hour, completing an entire building in a week,” says Enrico Dini, the Monolite founder. 

Nasa too has plans to print a “moonbase” using microwave technology powered by solar panels. That would heat up lunar dust and bind it into building materials that would be assembled by a giant six-legged robot vehicle, the Athlete Rover, a prototype of which has already been built.

The advantage of Nasa’s model is that unlike the ESA concept, it would not even require the transport of the binding agent from Earth.

Nasa’s extra-terrestrial explorer, the Athlete Rover, would assemble big bubble structures to accommodate the astronauts.

Another benefit of using lunar dust is that astronauts could use it on the surface of the Moon surrounding their base, thereby clearing it away from their immediate vicinity. Lunar dust, which is jagged, can clog equipment, wear down seals and injure human lungs.

Once safely ensconced in their Moon habitat, astronauts could then use 3D printing technology to build tools and machine components – and even pasta, when they get hungry.

“If you look at food industry, they’re working on having a Star Trek-style replicator,” says Andreas Bohle of the German Aerospace Center. “If you put plastic or metal powder in a 3D printer, you can also put flour in it. One day your noodles will come out of this machine.”

business@thenational.ae