Posts Tagged ‘ESA’

  • European Space Agency prints a lunar base

    It’s printing, but not as we know it. 3D printing technology lies at the heart of an audacious new plan by the European Space Agency to discover the best way to literally print a multi-domed base station on the moon.

    The European Space Agency (ESA) has entered into a partnership with a consortium of organisations to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations.

    The consortium includes Italian space engineering firm Alta SpA, working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Monolite UK, and renowned architecture and integrated design firm, Foster + Partners.

    Addressing the challenges of transporting materials to the moon, the study is investigating the use of lunar soil, known as regolith, as building matter, to be used as the base material in a 3D printer, which would print out blocks.

    “Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

    For the project, Foster + Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts.

    The base’s design was guided in turn by the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, with a 1.5 tonne building block produced as a demonstration. This was undertaken at a smaller scale in a vacuum chamber to echo lunar conditions. The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon.

    “3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the development of a common exploration strategy.”

    The 3D D-Shape printer used to print the block.

    Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group, said, “As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials. Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”

    The UK’s Monolite supplied the D-Shape printer, used to print the 3D structure, with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a six-metre frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material.

    3D ‘printouts’ are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves.

    “First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” explained Monolite founder Enrico Dini. “Then for our structural ‘ink’ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid.”

    “Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 m per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 m per hour, completing an entire building in a week,” he said.