Can you build a moonbase with a 3D printer?

Can you build a moonbase with a 3D printer?

Summary: The European Space Agency is carrying out tests to find out if it is possible to build structures on the moon for human habitation with a 3D printer.

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is assessing whether it is possible to build a lunar base from materials found on the moon using a 3D printer .

3D printers are used to create objects by adding materials layer by layer in a process that is referred to as 'additive manufacturing'. 

"3D printing in space would work the same way as on Earth," ESA project leader, Laurent Pambaguian, told ZDNet on Thursday.

Lunar base
What the lunar base could look like. Image: European Space Agency

The ESA will work with architects Foster + Partners to test the feasibility of 3D printing from lunar soil, also known as regolith.

The collaboration envisages using a 3D printer to apply lunar soil as a stone-like protective shell around the outside of an inflatable dome, which would be made on Earth and carried to the moon in a rocket.

The protective layer could protect human habitants from meteorites, gamma rays and extreme temperatures.

3D base
The base would be coated in lunar soil. Image: ESA

The ESA created a 1.5-tonne block on Earth with a 3D printer provided by UK-based Monolite. The block — made from a mixture of terrestrial basaltic rock, magnesium oxide and a binding salt — was made with the D-Shape printer, which has been used in a variety of building projects. 

"Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2m per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5m per hour, completing an entire building in a week," said Monolite founder Enrico Dini, in a statement. 

The conditions found on the moon aren't conducive to 3D printing, said Pambaguian, adding that the low gravity and extreme temperatures could affect the chemical reactions that take place in the 3D printing process.  

However, Italian space research firm Alta SpA and Pisa-based Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna University tested the printer to see if it could be used in a vacuum, and concluded that by inserting the 3D printer nozzle into the regolith layer, "the basic concept" could work.

Lunar bases are most likely to be built on the moon's poles because that is where temperatures are closest to those found on Earth.

"3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth," said Scott Hovland of ESA's human spaceflight team in a statement on Thursday. 

"The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy."

This article was amended at 15.44GMT to clarify how the printer was tested in a vacuum.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Printers

Sam Shead

About Sam Shead

Sam is generally at his happiest with a new piece of technology in his hands or nailing down an exclusive story. In the past he's written for The Engineer and the Daily Mail. These days, Sam is particularly interested in emerging technology, datacentres, cloud, storage and web start-ups.

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18 comments
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  • I guess the idea of bulldozing the dirt over your structure is

    just too radical to consider, eh?
    baggins_z
    • yeah, because

      i'm sure it's super easy to bring a bulldozer to the moon.
      zrax
      • It's a lot easier than shipping a 3D

        printer up there.
        baggins_z
        • Why

          Why would you assume that? 3D printer technology has come a long way.
          jhnnybgood
          • Either way, it's gonna be big

            Well, either way it's likely gonna be big. With current 3D printing technologies, the printer has to be large enough to hold object it's printing. You'll want a 3D printer at least large enough to print reasonable size pieces.
            CobraA1
          • Agreed

            The printer will likely be large, but i imagine it can also be more modular too compared to heavy machinery.

            How cool is this story though? Two very science fiction type of technologies (moonbase and 3D printing) coming together for maybe a little science-fact.
            jhnnybgood
          • Not really

            Assuming the printer could print using raw material found on the moon, you could create many smaller pieces and have a rover assemble them, like a puzzle.

            Further more, a small 3D printer could produce all the components to build a larger 3d printer on the moon, or ever an entire array of printers.

            3d printers are cheap (relatively) and would be a space/weight/cost efficient to send to space compared to finished construction materials.
            SoulSD
          • A lunar bulldozer

            would be a tremendously simple device mechanically. And since lunar gravity is 1/6th that of earth, it would also be very light. Basically an open tube framework, mesh tires, a push blade, some solar panels, a camera and a remote control servo. You'd send it up there, and sit in the comfort of your office at NASA and teleoperate the thing to push lunar regolith around. One of the big problems with our space program is that we want to overengineer everything.
            baggins_z
          • Sure ... because the "printing material" is ...

            ... freely available at the Best Buy stores on the Moon.
            wackoae
          • No Best Buy Stores

            No Best Buy stores, but I'm pretty positive lunar soil is plentiful on the moon.
            jhnnybgood
      • Yeah, It's not like they got a couple of space stations in orbit

        or a car on the moon.

        No one said it would be easy, but far from impossible.
        William Farrel
  • Italians discover how to reduce gravity!!

    "Italian space research firm Alta SpA and Pisa-based Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna University used a vacuum chamber to simulate the low-gravity conditions found in the lunar environment..."

    Wow, who knew that things floated if you took away the air?
    pete.harman
    • really?

      That's what you took away from this article?
      zrax
    • This has been amended.

      Thank you for your comment. We have clarified the passage.
      Jon Yeomans
  • I have an idea

    I have an idea - when they get to the moon, they should 3D print a shovel. No wait, how about they just bring one along?
    VoteForPedro
  • Space Elevator...

    ...should be first priority.
    martykz
  • Hmmm....

    Google up the YouTube video titled "Printing a bicycle with a 3D printer" -- it's really a matter of lasers and making moon dust more manufacturing-friendly, which you can apparently do with the addition of carbon and glue.
    JustCallMeBC
  • Only If You Can Do Purple Wigs!

    Mmmm, Dolores Mantez...
    ldo17