To say that 3D printing technology has grown by leaps and bounds is an understatement. It has been used to build construction models, artificial limbs and even a faux car for the most recent James Bond thriller, Skyfall. Now, if the scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) and designers at British architectural firm Foster and Partners are right, it may soon be heading to the Moon!
The fact that the planet Mars is the next frontier astronauts are planning to explore, is a known fact. Engineers have been working hard on building a suitable Space Vehicle, nutritionists have been trying to come up with the appropriate cuisine and some brave men have even gone through the ordeal of spending the 520 days it will take to get to the Red Planet and back, sequestered inside a mock shuttle. There is one unsolved problem - Where the astronauts will live when they get to the Moon, which is where they are expected to set up base camp.
That is the problem that ESA scientists asked the designers at London-based Foster and Partners to solve. While it may sound like a simple job for an architectural firm, building a structure on the Moon has many challenges that designers do not have to face on Earth. First and foremost of course, is the raw material that will be required to construct the living quarters - Given that it would be impossible to transport materials like wood and cement from earth, they had to start with something available in abundance on the moon - raw Lunar soil!
Then, there is the issue of labor - Given that humans cannot not survive in the extreme Lunar temperatures without adequate protection, means that laborers could not be sent to build this dome. The only solution therefore would be to send robots.
However, there still remained the question of how the raw lunar soil could be transformed into building material that is strong and solid enough to provide a safe abode for the space scientists.
This, is where 3D printing comes in! The architects began by mixing simulated lunar soil with magnesium oxide - This effectively transformed it into a pulp-like material, which could be passed through the printer to create 3-D building material sheets. Since each individual layer is not strong enough, the architects printed multiple layers and then bound them with a special salt, that turned the flimsy layers into a stone like solid material. The architects who have built a small model on earth, believe that if everything goes according to their plan, using this technique, a structure big enough to house four astronauts could be built in just a week.
Also, thanks to this innovative idea, the house will be totally sustainable and the only things that will be required to be shipped to the moon will be the robots, some pressurized inflatables the same shape as the dome and of course the printer(s)! Watch out Martians, here we come!
Resources: Gizmag.com, dailymail.co.uk, esa.int