Printing the Moon - 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) holds amazing promise in reducing what it takes to create … anything. That is especially true in environments without established industrial infrastructure. The ability to transport a minimal self-contained set of tools to a remote location, combine it with a power source, and then transform local raw material into useable technology, may be the most powerful application of 3D printing ever envisioned. And few other locations are as remote as the surface of another celestial body like our planet’s moon.
Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil. Foster + Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts. A hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of bird bones – provides a good combination of strength and weight.
The base’s design was guided in turn by the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, with a 1.5 tonne building block produced as a demonstration. The UK’s Monolite supplied the D-Shape printer, with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 6 meter frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material. “First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” explained Monolite founder Enrico Dini. “Then for our structural ‘ink’ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid.