The European Space Agency (ESA) is backing architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in developing a habitat to be built on the moon. A prototype for a skeletal floor has been developed by metal 3D printing firm MX3D, famous earlier this year for its metal 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam, built with wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), which leverages a robotic arm to melt metal wire into a freestanding object.
For the floor system, engineers needed to meet construction constraints maintaining structural integrity. By delineating stress map analysis and an optimized continuous topology, MX3D scientists created a structure with a smooth web pattern design which cantilevers towards the center to outside, allowing these cross sections to be printed at a reduced thickness without losing structural integrity.
The floor was printed using MX3D’s proprietary WAAM method with 308LSi stainless steel, a popular material in the aerospace and space industries. The print took 246 hours, weighed in at 395 kg and measured 4.5 m long. Six separate segments make up the overall floor design, these pieces are printed individually and then are welded together, the structure is held up by three columns and features a series of floor panels.
Advenit Makaya, Advanced Manufacturing Engineer at ESA, said of the project, “This is a remarkable achievement from MX3D, which further highlights the potential of this additive manufacturing technique for an increasing range of space applications. The design flexibility and the possibility to combine the printed structure with embedded monitoring systems – as demonstrated in the 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam – are worth investigating for applications in space structures.”
“This was a great opportunity to show the potential of our technology for the fabrication of lightweight metal structures together with ESA and SOM,” explains Gijs van der Velden, CEO of MX3D. “It was a perfect project for MX3D to leverage its experience in printing topology optimised metal structures. Achieving an optimal use of material is a company goal at MX3D because – just as when designing space applications – every reduced kilo in a MX3D design is a direct win for a project’s feasibility.”
Space-based construction is thought to benefit greatly from the convenience and customizability that 3D printing affords. In theory, printers can be set up and used to build entire habitations, even using the planet’s own regolith as feedstock. Spacecraft could potentially include 3D printing systems allowing astronauts to print parts or tools as necessary, as already occurs on the International Space Station.
NASA itself is currently backing 36 projects related to lunar 3D printing. As a part of its Artemis project, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 to explore the south pole, NASA is also looking for ways to inhabit the moon long-term. Last year, the space agency contracted construction 3D printing firm ICON to prototype a moon base. Termed Project Olympus, the firm is working to develop buildings that; can be printed directly on the moon, withstand extraterrestrial conditions, use materials found on the moon, and leave no waste. Such technology, when developed, could prove useful for sustainable construction here on Earth as well.
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