Building a lunar base with 3D printing

Jan 31, 2013
Lunar base made with 3D printing. Credit: ESA

(Phys.org)—Setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it from local materials. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil.

"Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures," said Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA.

"Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat."

Foster + Partners devised a weight-bearing 'catenary' dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and , incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts.

A hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of – 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.

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. Credit: ESA

"3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth," added 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."

"As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, ," remarked Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group. "Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic."

The UK’s Monolite supplied the D-Shape printer for ESA's 3D-printed lunar base study, with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 6 m frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material. 3D ‘printouts’ are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves. First the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide – turning it into ‘paper’ to print with. Then for structural ‘ink’ a binding salt is applied which converts material to a stone-like solid. Credit: ESA

The UK's Monolite supplied 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.

3D 'printouts' are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves.

"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.

"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."

Italian space research firm Alta SpA worked with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna on adapting 3D printing techniques to a mission and ensuring process quality control. The effect of working in a vacuum was also assessed.

For ESA's 3D-printed lunar base concept, 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. Credit: ESA

"The process is based on applying liquids but, of course, unprotected liquids boil away in vacuum," said Giovanni Cesaretti of Alta.

"So we inserted the nozzle beneath the regolith layer. We found small 2 mm-scale droplets stay trapped by capillary forces in the soil, meaning the printing process can indeed work in vacuum."

Simulated lunar regolith is produced for scientific testing by specialist companies, typically sold by the kilogram. But the team required many tonnes for their work.

"As another useful outcome, we discovered a European source of simulated lunar regolith," added Enrico.

"Basaltic rock from one volcano in central Italy turns out to bear a 99.8% resemblance to ."

"This project took place through ESA's General Studies Programme, used to look into new topics," Laurent commented.

"We have confirmed the basic concept, and assembled a capable team for follow-on work."

Factors such as controlling lunar dust – hazardous to breathe in – and thermal factors will require further study.

3D printing works best at room temperature but over much of the Moon temperatures vary enormously across days and nights lasting two weeks each. For potential settlement, the lunar poles offer the most moderate temperature range.

Explore further: Researchers increase the switching contrast of an all-optical flip-flop

Related Stories

3D printer could build moon bases

Apr 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- An Italian inventor, Enrico Dini, chairman of the company Monolite UK Ltd, has developed a huge three-dimensional printer called D-Shape that can print entire buildings out of sand and an ...

Dutch architect to build house with 3D printer

Jan 23, 2013

A Dutch architect has designed a house "with no beginning or end" to be built using the world's largest 3D printer, harnessing technology that may one day be used to print houses on the moon.

Europe's plans to visit the Moon in 2018

Jul 27, 2012

The European Space Agency is aiming for the Moon with their Lunar Lander mission, anticipated to arrive on the lunar surface in 2018. Although ESA successfully put a lander on the surface of Titan with the ...

Researcher use robot arm to print 3D sand structures

Aug 06, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Researchers from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia have built a programmable robot arm with a nozzle for a hand that allows for building structures out of sand mixed with water ...

Recommended for you

Intelligent materials that work in space

Oct 23, 2014

ARQUIMEA, a company that began in the Business Incubator in the Science Park of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, will be testing technology it has developed in the International Space Station. The technology ...

Using sound to picture the world in a new way

Oct 22, 2014

Have you ever thought about using acoustics to collect data? The EAR-IT project has explored this possibility with various pioneering applications that impact on our daily lives. Monitoring traffic density ...

User comments : 27

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sean_W
3.7 / 5 (7) Jan 31, 2013
I think that some of the final development of such a process for the lunar environment will be done at a prefab lunar base. In other words, it will eventually be great for expanding colonies and creating second generation settlements but the first lunar colonies won't be printed, I suspect.
JRi
5 / 5 (3) Jan 31, 2013
So something like Markus Kayser had done, using solar heating 3D-printer to make objects of sand in Sahara desert.

http://www.youtub...-24UYFs0
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (9) Jan 31, 2013
Architects. Well at least it will look pretty.
flashgordon
5 / 5 (2) Jan 31, 2013
I saw a criticism of one of the asteroid mining companies(there's two of them) that 3d printing might not work; looks like that problem has been solved.
ValeriaT
1.1 / 5 (7) Jan 31, 2013
The smelting of regolite would release the water and hellium-3, which could have usage even at the Moon itself. It's just a matter or reliable energy source - with cold fusion we could build the titanium constructions at the Moon, reduced and welded with electron beam at place. With enough of energy we could do what we want with whatever cosmic body. But we cannot do it, until we don't invest into research of such energy source responsibly. Without it we will return into stone age instead, because of nuclear fight for the rests of fossil fuel sources. Is it really what we want for our future?
Dug
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 31, 2013
Let's see, the materials being used have to be graded, refined and then put into a water based slurry to spray from the printer. The ancillary refining and material processing equipment for the 3-D printers ink are not insignificant. Last I heard water was a rather scarce commodity on the moon. The energy (and financial) budgets to accomplish the project on the moon as described seemed to have either not been well considered, or glossed over - as have those for the supporting systems and materials for lunar 3-D printing.
El_Nose
4 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2013
any given area of the moon gets 14 days of continuous sunlight every 28 days
nanotech_republika_pl
4.7 / 5 (3) Jan 31, 2013
I wonder about any temperature differential that may lead to the dome cracking. Temperature difference either between outside and the inside of the dome, or changes over time (14 days period for example), or front and back of the dome with sun shining on one side only if the dome is located at a Moon pole.

In a typical building concrete structure on Earth, you can use steel rods to crack control the concrete. But the stresses must be much higher on the Moon I bet.

Then do you have to provide some fibers inside the dome to reinforce it? If so, you must print fibers at the same time?

How long till this weathering process of changing temperatures will crumble the dome?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (11) Jan 31, 2013
Last I heard water was a rather scarce commodity on the moon. The energy (and financial) budgets to accomplish the project on the moon as described seemed to have either not been well considered, or glossed over
Or perhaps you did not do even a little research to check out your opinions before dropping them here?

There is an enormous amount of water on the moon, especially where we might want to build - at the poles.
http://en.wikiped...ar_water

-Always assume that people who write papers know more than people who read articles. Yes?
Feldagast
3 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
Water should be reserved for life support and energy production, tunneling is a better answer, carve the habitats out of the rock. That printer looks to be a delicate instrument, how well will it stand up to the abrasives of the lunar dust?
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (5) Feb 01, 2013
Before this article I was convinced the best way to set up a habitat on the Moon (or Mars) would be by digging down. Now I'm not so sure. In low-g environments largish, lightweight 3D printers seem to be a pretty neat idea (whereas digging equipment is notoriously massive and prone to wear and tear).

A very simple setup could print (potentialy huge) domed structures. I can't wait to see until they try this out.

Maybe even use a very similar method once we harvest an asteroid (or manage to get one into lunar orbit) to build space habitats/vessels?
Breaking up/melting matter from the asteroid and repositioning/printing it in free fall could give us any kind of geometry and size with relative ease.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.3 / 5 (7) Feb 01, 2013
Sorry I don't see how this would be preferrable to inflating structures and then burying them using robots. Foster has nice pictures of this on it's website, which is what it is for. PR.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
I don't see how this would be preferrable to inflating structures and then burying them using robots

You'll need the infalteable part in any case. Burying is a good idea. But digging through hard rock tends to blunt tools (and the tools for digging also are mostly pretty massive affairs).
And if a robot gets stuck while digging it's a total loss.

The transport that will set up a moon base is likely not to be able to carry a lot of mass or a lot of spare parts. So the simpler and more robust the means of creating habitable space the better. 3D printing does seem attractive seen in this light.
islatas
5 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
Perhaps the solution to intense surface temperature fluctuations is simply to cover the printed structures in loose, non-printed lunar regolith. The material has a unit U value that would vary dependent on installed level of compaction. This property could be evaluated, an installation process selected to ensure relative consistency, and a minimum thickness of a regolith layer selected. I think this could reduce the temperature fluctuations into a tolerable range for the printed material.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2013
Perhaps the solution to intense surface temperature fluctuations

A double shelled structure with a tiny gap in between should be enough. The vacuum of the Moon provides very good insulation. Within those shells an inflateable structure could be as simple as a mylar sheet for keeping heat in (though we may want something a bit more robust against accidental tears to protect against loss of atmosphere).

The thickness of the regolith layer would probably be not be determined by thermal considerations but by radiation protection and/or protection against micrometeorites.
islatas
5 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2013
A double shelled structure with a tiny gap in between should be enough.


The regolith wouldn't be to protect the interior of the structure from the temperature fluctuations but rather the printed structure itself. The outer shell of a 2 shell structure would still be subject to the cyclical stress and strain of sun/shade. Materials can only endure so much delta T before they fracture simply due to the temperature at construction vs the current temperature or through fatigue over many cycles. A loose regolith layer is free to expand and contract as it needs to absorb the stress strain on a granular level where a printed structure would potentially fail due to restrictions of said coping mechanisms.

I really do hope 3D printing in space becomes a reality. Using local materials only bolsters the argument for it.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2013
You don't have to print in a monolithic way. It's rather easy to print structures that are porous or in any other geometry that would allow for expansion and contraction (and if all else fails there's always the option of just putting an IR reflective coating on top...you'd probably want to plaster it with thin film solar cells, anyhow).
I'm not sure that heat expansion/contraction is that much of structural a problem.
islatas
5 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2013
Temperature range is absolutely a structural concern, not a problem. It's easily dealt with. But there are also other methods of exposure fatigue that are more difficult. Fatigue failure occurs at microscopic levels. The grain to grain binding would be subjected every cycle no matter the geometry of the structure. An IR coating or anything else would be another item you have to bring to the moon. It may well be that only a couple inches of material would suffice. As you pointed out, the moon is essentially in a vacuum and moon regolith has very high albedo. The same 3d printer could even be used to apply it. It just wouldn't require the chemical binder to be used for those layers that are loose.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2013
NASA is looking into sending a 3D printer to the ISS
http://www.3ders....iss.html

(Though it's an EBF3 printer which works somewhat differently)
But at least we'll find out soon how well that additive processes work in low-g environments
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
Temperature range is absolutely a structural concern, not a problem.

Another idea to avoid the problem alltogether would be to build in a permanently shaded crater. This would give constant temperature. And since the probably water sources are located there it would actually make a lot of sense to build close to such a source (maybe even right on top of it).

Many experiments work better if they are performed at very low temperatures (another advantage of such a site). On the other hand: keeping a permanently shaded habitable structure in the vacuum of space at comfortable temperatures shouldn't need too much extra energy.

And being in a permanently shaded part means you're close to a rock wall - which already shields you much better from (the sun's) radiation and microdebris from that direction than any artificial dome could.
islatas
not rated yet Feb 01, 2013
NASA is looking into sending a 3D printer to the ISS
http://www.3ders....iss.html

(Though it's an EBF3 printer which works somewhat differently)
But at least we'll find out soon how well that additive processes work in low-g environments


That's awesome! We're in for some very exciting times in the near future!
islatas
not rated yet Feb 01, 2013
Another idea to avoid the problem alltogether would be to build in a permanently shaded crater.


Excellent points. Now that you mention it I vaguely remember seeing NASA renderings that showed lunar settlements in craters. I have no doubt that NASA/ESA/etc engineers would have considered everything we've discussed and beyond.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2013
Yeah. I guess we sometimes get thrown off by the "artist's renditions"...which are, for obvious reasons, always painted in sunlight and with Earthshine.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 01, 2013
digging through hard rock tends to blunt tools (and the tools for digging also are mostly pretty massive affairs). And if a robot gets stuck while digging it's a total loss.
Not digging. Plowing.

"One design (pictured left) uses inflatable "pillows" to create a cuboid shape (rather than the more natural spherical shape). Many of these pillows can be aligned and added on to create a growing settlement. They would maintain their shape by using high-tensile beams to battle against the bellowing membrane material. Protection from micrometeorites and solar radiation would be provided by regolith."

"This robot is designed by the aerospace program at the University of Toronto to plow lunar soil"
http://www.northe...CAT.aspx

-In related news, robots are set to begin mining the deep ocean floor:
http://www.nautil...nces.asp
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2013
Here's where a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat comes in handy. It's necessary to keep lunar colonists from going stir-crazy, and the ability to provide plenty of space for them is important. I foresee Bigelow bundles delivered to the moon in advance of manned landers for later retrieval, inflation, and assembly (or assembly, then inflation) by future inhabitants.
antonima
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2013
So something like Markus Kayser had done, using solar heating 3D-printer to make objects of sand in Sahara desert.

http://www.youtub...-24UYFs0


I was thinking of this too! The moon gets even more solar energy/square meter because it lacks an atmosphere. It seems like it would be a great boon when constructing things on the moon.
sirchick
not rated yet Feb 05, 2013
If only - just can't see it ever being done in next 100 years.