Humanity hasn’t been to the moon in decades, but various space agencies around the globe are planning to head back. This time it’s not just for a short visit — the plan is to build a permanent base that can act a launching pad for missions further out in the solar system. The problem is how to build a moon base without transporting all the heavy materials from Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) thinks it’s got the solution: 3D printing.
3D printing on Earth has been used to make structures, so it is believed that the same could be done on the moon with lunar soil as the raw material. Using lunar regolith analog (basaltic rock from a volcano in Italy), researchers were able to build a massive 1.5 ton building block as a proof of concept. The design would utilize an inflatable dome to hold an atmosphere with hollow closed-cell structures printed on site.
The oversized 3D printer was supplied by UK-based Monolite. It’s a D-shaped rig with an extruder nozzle on a 6-meter wide frame. Like a 3D printer on Earth, the nozzle moves around and lays down material layer-by-layer. The machine can currently build 2-meters of wall units per-hour, but the next prototype should bump that up to 3.5 meters.
The big challenge is going to be testing the process on Earth, when the conditions on the moon are going to be so different. The lack of an atmosphere is going to make working with liquid impossible. The current process involves mixing water with the volcanic basalt, but researchers believe mixing lunar soil with magnesium oxide should produce a paper-like material that can be printed. Temperature is also a concern. The lunar surface is subject to wild swings in temperature. Setting up shop at one of the poles should provide a more moderate climate.