When people find out that I write about 3D printing, if they have the frivolity to dismiss the technology as inconsequential, my go-to example is always space.
While 3D printing is making impacts in a number of other sectors where lives are saved, and the world as we know it may change, the idea of inhabiting space has serious impact. Just imagine the freedom afforded for exploration and colonizing if we can put the theories around 3D printing in space into action. The European Space Agency has just released a video outlining plans to do this.
We’ve figured out how to get to space. Now we want to stay longer—and we need to be able to maintain vehicles, stations, spacecraft and more, while we are there. All signs point to 3D printing allowing this in the near future.
There is one big issue though—quite simply: the moon is rather inhospitable. Earth seems like a cozy mother compared to the moon with no atmosphere, which means no protection from solar radiation or gamma radiation. The moon is also prone to extreme, unpredictable weather fluctuations, as well as having no protection from meteorites. I think it’s safe to say that the rock we see glowing every night in the sky doesn’t seem to want us there–but we continue to find ways around that.
Because of the obvious priority placed on storing fuel for the ride, the idea is not to take things to the moon, but to make things on the moon. The European Space Agency released some very interesting information on this last year, and now has given us a visual outline as to how 3D printing could be viable and beneficial on the moon, with the big question standing being which type of materials we want to 3D print with.
By sending a lunar lander to the moon’s south pole, Shackleton Crater, with an attached cylinder, the materials could be sent and then expanded further through 3D printing with an inflatable dome and robotic 3D printers.
Once the cylinder is unloaded, the dome inflates and operates like a support structure or scaffolding while the robot 3D printers build the habitat by scooping up regolith, the moon’s soil, and building it up over the dome, creating a shell which is light, but very, very strong—comparable to bones like that of a bird.
The 3D printed base would house four people, giving them light through skylights, and protecting them from all the issues of radiation and threat from meteorites. This idea, presented by Foster+Partners, resolves the issue of protecting humans from the elements. While it looks quite viable, the remaining concern is that of what material to use for the 3D printers. Two schools of thought are currently in play:
- Transporting a binding fluid to the moon to mix with regolith for 3D printing.
- Employing 3D lunar printing by harnessing concentrated sunlight to melt regolith rather than using a binding liquid.
The ESA is hosting 350 experts this month to keep exploring and expanding the theory. There’s no doubt that very impressive progress has been made, and we look forward to reporting more on this process as theory works its way into reality. Have you been following the ESA’s foray into 3D printing on the moon? Tell us your thoughts in the 3D Printed Moon Base forum thread at 3DPB.com.