What a 3D printed Moon base might look like. via
We’re getting to the point where we can make just about anything with 3D printers – weapons, food, art, pieces of humans, even cells in seconds. But the European Space Agency is thinking bigger and exploring just how far the technology can go. The agency has recently begun researching ways to 3D print a base on the Moon using materials mined in situ.
What’s really interesting about 3D printing is that it allows you to build large, complex structures that one likely couldn’t with traditional construction methods. The downside is you’re restricted by the size of the printer. If it can’t fit in the printer, it won’t print, which is the main issue on the printing side.
On the Moon base side, the traditional issues are weight and cost. All rockets have a set lift capacity – they can only carry so much into orbit and on to the Moon. And every pound of payload costs money in fuel, and the further the payload has to go the more fuel it takes. But untraditional ideas about propulsion and types of habitats could make cost and weight non-issues. And that’s where 3D printing comes in.
Imagine if all you needed to establish a base on the Moon was astronauts, their spacecraft, and a 3D printer. They could mine material from the Moon and print themselves a habitat. It would save weight, cost less, and be pretty awesome all at the same time.
A multi-dome render from the ESA
That’s the scenario the European Space Agency is researching. It’s recently embarked on a partnership with the architectural firm Foster + Partners to assess just how feasible this idea really is.
The architects have been focusing on the design of the habitat. They’re looking at a weight-bearing “catenary” dome design that would use a cellular wall to shield astronauts from micrometeorites and radiation. The dome would cover an inflatable, pressurized environment that would serve as crew quarters.
After choosing a design, the next piece of the puzzle is finding the right material. It is possible to print something solid from something unlikely. UK-based company Monolite created structures using a sand-like material mixed with salt that acted as a binding agent. Printed in a 20 foot D-shaped printer, the finished structure was solid as stone.
Monolite's D-shaped 3D printer. via
3D printing habitats is also an idea Mars enthusiasts are excited about. The Mars Foundation, which has been researching ways in which astronauts might build a habitat from materials they find on Mars, have also using the technology as a weight-saving measure.
Of course, it’s not as simple as printing a habitat. Habitats need things like plumbing, storage, and crew amenities. And there’s still a potential cost-drawback. The “ink” for these 3D Moon printers will have to be cheaper to mine, refine, and use than carrying the printed structure from the Earth to the Moon. There’s also the cost of the “ink” mining missions to consider; even if the astronauts are able to mine and build in the same mission, they'll still need somewhere to stay while the base is built. The printer will also have to be lighter and smaller than a traditional habitat to make it worthwhile, and hopefully less prone to error messages than the average office copier.
Despite possible drawbacks, printing a house on the Moon when you get there is a pretty awesome prospect. And if 3D printing does turn out the be the key to low cost lunar housing, we could see a market open up for retirement condos on the Moon.