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DARPA Chooses ICON to Develop Lunar Construction 3D Printing Technology

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has taken a significant step towards the future of lunar exploration. The agency’s 10-Year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) capability study is an ambitious initiative set to build innovative and user-friendly infrastructure on the Moon. This project is all about creating a network of accessible services and facilities for lunar activities, in line with international agreements for the Moon’s peaceful use, as advocated by the Artemis Accords. This effort lays the groundwork for future activities and economies on the lunar surface.

DARPA has handpicked 14 companies to participate in the LunA-10 project, each bringing unique skills and visions. This initiative seeks to study the rapid development of technology concepts for a series of shareable, scalable systems that can operate jointly, creating monetizable services for future lunar users.

“LunA-10 has the potential to upend how the civil space community thinks about spurring widespread commercial activity on and around the Moon within the next 10 years,” said Michael “Orbit” Nayak, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “LunA-10 performers include companies both big and small, domestic and international, each of which brought a clear vision and technically rigorous plan for advancing quickly towards our goal: a self-sustaining, monetizable, commercially owned-and-operated lunar infrastructure. We’re excited to get started and to share results with the lunar community at large.”

Pivotal contribution

Among the selected firms, large-scale 3D printing construction pioneer ICON stands out for its utilization of an advanced additive manufacturing platform, which is central to the project’s success. This highlights the potential role of 3D printing technologies in the LunA-10 project. ICON describes how its vision for building on other worlds requires inputs from “adjacent technology providers and innovators, from power to communications to mobility providers.” Participating in the LunA-10 study puts ICON’s space and off-world R&D team in direct contact with these providers.

“By participating in LunA-10, we can understand what inputs are going to be available, when, at what cost, and in what quantities. Similarly, those same providers will now understand what ICON capabilities they can rely on to enable their capabilities and services in the lunar economy,” said Evan Jensen, ICON’s Vice President of Strategic Research and Development (R&D).

ICON’s involvement in the LunA-10 project aligns with its ongoing research and development efforts in space construction. Notably, in 2022, under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, ICON received a nearly $60 million contract for Project Olympus to develop space-based construction systems using local lunar and Martian resources. This project supports NASA’s objectives for sustained lunar and Martian presence. Furthermore, in 2021, ICON, in collaboration with BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed a significant project for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, delivering the first-ever simulated Mars surface 3D printed habitat, Mars Dune Alpha, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to assist in extended space missions.

Project Olympus concept render for lunar construction. Image courtesy of BIG and ICON

Collaborative efforts

While ICON’s contribution is central, the project involves several other companies that used 3D printing in past projects. Companies like SpaceX, Sierra Space, Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), Blue Origin, CisLunar Industries, and Firefly Aerospace have a history of integrating 3D printing into their solutions, suggesting the potential for its application in the LunA-10 project. The project includes Crescent Space Services, Fibertek, GITAI, Helios, Honeybee Robotics, and Nokia of America, each bringing their unique expertise and innovative technologies to contribute to this groundbreaking lunar endeavor.

Particularly noteworthy is Redwire (NYSE: RDW), which has developed its own space-focused 3D printing technology. Although there is no explicit mention of these companies using 3D printing specifically for LunA-10, their past involvement with the technology suggests it could play a role in developing the project’s lunar infrastructure. Additionally, NASA has previously selected most of these companies for other space-related projects, demonstrating their extensive experience and reliability in space exploration and technology development.

Broader impact

The seven-month study will create a framework for interoperable commercial lunar architecture that will guide lunar research and investment over the next ten years. Building on this, LunA-10 is set to fast-track the development of advanced lunar technologies essential for future Moon-based projects. The project focuses on creating integrated solutions that combine various lunar services — such as energy, communication, and construction — into “cohesive and efficient systems.” These systems will be designed based on thorough analysis, aiming to maximize the use of overlapping technologies for a sustainable and economically viable Moon infrastructure.

Eventually, DARPA expects LunA-10 to lead to the creation of multiple strategies and standards, establishing benchmarks for system performance and outlining detailed designs that meet these standards. Besides, it will involve identifying crucial technologies, analyzing costs, and addressing the practical challenges of establishing such infrastructure on the Moon. The project underlines the importance of collaboration, moving away from isolated, stand-alone approaches.

ICON’s vision for lunar construction. Image courtesy of ICON.

Future prospects

By 2024, these companies will present their findings, offering a glimpse into the potential future of lunar infrastructure. This project positions itself at the forefront of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), a concept increasingly seen as the holy grail of deep space exploration and off-world colonization. At a critical crossroads where public agencies and private companies converge, it represents a move towards technologies that make leaving Earth and settling on the Moon or other planets more achievable.

This approach avoids the expensive and impractical task of transporting heavy parts, materials, and machinery into space. Instead, this project serves as an important stepping stone towards a future where space exploration is not just about reaching new worlds but also sustainably living on them. In the next decade, we could see the basis of a thriving economy on the Moon. This will involve moving from independent, self-contained systems to a more united way of doing business in space.

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