EU space agency eyes robotic 3D printer to build moon base

The ESA is looking to colonise the moon and use 3D printers to add a touch of European design.

Building bases on the moon may soon be one application adding to the expected boom in the 3D printing market in the coming years.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has refined its ideas for bringing 3D printing or 'additive manufacturing' to the moon, where it envisions robots equipped with 3D printers will construct housing for researchers in future.

ESA and the architectural firm Foster+Partners have created a new, more evolved mockup on the still images the pair published last year when the space agency first discussed the idea.

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The ESA still retains the same basic goal of printing a lightweight but strong mollusc-like pod on the moon, but now the agency wants to find out whether it can harness concentrated sunlight to melt regolith — the material blanketing the moon's surface — rather than using a binding liquid to construct the pods.

ESA's hypothetical moon pods would be located at the rim of the Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole — the same place NASA was eyeing in 2006 for its own moon structure, destined not just for explorers but for future residents of the moon.

The construction tools would be delivered to the moon in a landing capsule that houses two robotic 3D printers. Upon landing, the capsule would eject an inflatable dome, which serves as the scaffolding.

The robot itself would have a scoop on the front, two tanks containing the printing material, and robot arm with a printing head at the back. The robot collects regolith and piles it up around the scaffolding and holds the layers in place by printing a hollow cellular structure that's similar to bird bone, with the idea being that it's both light and strong. Each pod would take about three earth months to build.  

But like other moon colonisation projects, the ESA notes that it remain firmly on the drawing board.

 Read more on the ESA