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Project Meeka: Developing Tech for 3D Printing Moon Habitats

Inkbit

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Private teams are gearing up for lunar construction. Although this is not the first time in the last 50 years that we have heard of plans for lunar outposts, it feels closer to becoming a reality than before. The first concept for a moonbase can be traced back to 1958, when the United States Military envisioned a unified space command center on Earth’s natural satellite. Fast forward a few decades, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk discussed plans for a lunar colony he called “Moonbase Alpha,” named after the lunar base in 1970s science fiction British television show Space: 1999.

Several space companies have followed suit, like Austin-based construction technologies firm ICON and space exploration architecture designers at SEArch+. Now, Australian additive construction equipment and technology manufacturer Luyten has teamed up with Sydney University of New South Wales (UNSW) to fast-track the development of 3D printing technology to build structures on the Moon.

For the task, Luyten has designed an off-world printer light enough and highly robust to build a base on the Moon surface. Dubbed the Platypus Galacticus, the 3D construction platform is built on the basis of the company’s flagship mobile gantry 3D concrete system, the Platypus, and would be capable of producing a settlement with lunar materials.

Designed for compactness using lightweight composites for its structure and robotic transforming technology, the Platypus Galacticus would theoretically be ideal for space transportation. According to the company, the off-world Platypus Galacticus will be powered with advanced software and use a proprietary extruding mechanism known as Luyten Turisops. The team expects it will produce structures with a height of up to nine meters and 12 meters in length and smaller complex geometries of up to one meter in height and width.

Since launching in 2020, Luyten’s mission has been to make construction more accessible and sustainable across a broad range of industries by reducing the time and cost of building, the amount of construction waste generated, and the impact of build activities on the surrounding environment. Luyten’s state-of-the-art 3D printing and additive technologies have become a worldwide success story as companies across the globe scramble to purchase their printers.  In response to global demand, Luyten is now expanding its technology use to moon building.

The new printer is part of Luyten’s Project Meeka, which means moon in some of Australia’s First Nations languages. According to the company’s co-founder and CEO, Ahmed Mahil, the lunar work is advanced and now at a stage where the team is fine-tuning and testing the types of materials and designs needed for construction purposes on the surface of the Moon.

In fact, one of the project’s leaders and UNSW associate professor of computational design and artificial intelligence (AI), Matthias Hank Haeusler, explained that for the process to work on the Moon, first rovers with ground-penetrating radar will assess the location’s structural capacity to build. Then, in contrast, other rovers with ultrasonic props and excavation capabilities will start harvesting lunar regolith.

To source building materials from the regolith and then characterize its mechanical properties, the excavation rover will deposit collated lunar dust at a regolith sorting reservoir where it will be sintered into a printable form using concentrated microwaves. Then, the transforming robots will initially construct shell structures at the building site. Haeusler suggests that this information can help determine the habitat design according to the material properties identified on each building site, helping create customized structures.

“With Computational Design one has a method to design protective shells for habitats on the moon – with a foremost consideration on requirements for human habitat in mind. Computational Design allows to feed in scientific knowledge on how to protect humans from solar and cosmic radiation into a script that generates a shelter with the required 80 plus centimetres of solid material while optimising the structure towards the print process,” revealed Haeusler.

Once the 3D printable material has been sourced, the Platypus Galacticus would start printing on the compacted lunar surface. Due to its abundance, regolith will be the primary building material of the printed structures. For now, however, there is only so much we know about the possibilities of lunar 3D printing on-site. Building any network on the Moon, whether its habitats or roads, will be quite different from any of the traditional constructions on Earth.

Aerial rendering of Luyten's 3D printer on the Moon base camp

Aerial rendering of Luyten’s 3D printer on the Moonbase camp. Image courtesy of Luyten.

Companies testing technology for lunar construction will face several challenges, including the reduced gravity on Earth’s natural satellite. In theory, the concept of 3D printing off-Earth sounds too good to be true; however, experts have raised concerns about the future of 3D printing in space. They are even pointing out that it is still unclear to what extent any materials and rocks found on Earth and other planetary bodies can be economically converted and used as 3D printing feedstocks.

Nonetheless, the private space industry is moving ahead with several projects to use additive technologies in space. This particular partnership between Luyten and UNSW will find a team of experts working together to develop, test, and implement technology to expedite colonization of the Moon and other planets. At the same time, they are solidifying Australia’s role in the world’s fast-developing space economy.

Several countries are training crews for moon missions set to occur sometime within the next decade, including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), China National Space Administration (CNSA), and Russia’s space program Roscosmos. But for whoever gets there first, the priority will be survival, including on-site habitat construction, something Luyten and UNSW are sure they can achieve.

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