Maybe Newt Gingrich was right: setting up a lunar base may not be a completely unrealistic idea after all. According to the European Space Agency, “setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it from local materials” — and that is exactly what the agency is hoping to do, with the help of world renowned architects Foster + Partners.
The firm, which has also designed London’s Wembley Stadium, the Millau Viaduct in France and airports in Hong Kong and Beijing, won a competition run by the space agency to look into research about 3D printing in space.
Their design mixes elements of science fiction and space-based engineering concepts to create an outline for a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome with a hollow closed-cell structure that would shelter up to four astronauts, allowing them to live and work on the Moon, protected from outside elements.
To test the possibility of actually producing the design, the designers printed a 1.5 ton building block using rock from an Italian volcano – a 99.8% match for the lunar soil that would be used to make the actual colony.
The printer used to create the block, the D-Shape printer created by Enrico Dini, is the very same one to be used to build the world’s first 3D printed house. Dini explained the hypothetical process of printing using his machine, which has already been used to print sculptures:
”First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with. 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 meters per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 meters per hour, completing an entire building in a week.”
ESA is hoping that 3D printing will ease the process of establishing settlements on the Moon: “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,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s spaceflight team.
The project is not the first time that the idea of using a 3D printer in space has been put forward: Deep Space Mining Industries, a California-based private space company which launched in January, also put forward plans for using a 3D printer to build materials taken from Near-earth asteroids.
What both projects have in common is the understanding that sending building materials into space is hugely expensive, hence the push to use materials already out there. For Foster + Partners however, one of the greater challenges was creating a design that can protect astronauts from the conditions on the Moon: “We’re actually looking at the environment parameters — gamma radiation, temperature fluctuations, meteorite impacts — and we’ve made some good guesses as to what kind of protection you would need from printed material,” explained Xavier de Kestelier, co-head of Foster + Partners’ specialist modeling group, when speaking with Wired.
The ESA have already identified a potential spot for building the structure – at the Moon’s south pole where it will be in direct line of sight of the Earth. So far however, it looks to still be in its very early stages as the space agency have yet to announce plans for when it may be built.