Can you build a moonbase with a 3D printer?

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.

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.