Lunar Bases Could be Constructed using Additive Manufacturing

Lunar manufacturing facility would use local materials

Global efforts to return to the moon by 2024 are gearing up across many industrialised nations. The problem remains how to stay on the surface permanently? Does additive manufacturing (AM) offer an efficient solution? 

 The European Space Agency (ESA) has researched the feasibility of a pioneering construction method to producd lunar bases by 3D printing them directly from raw materials found on the lunar surface. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster and Partners have joined with ESA to test the viability of 3D printing using the constituents of lunar soil. 

 This current concept uses an inflatable dome superstructure that is first unfolded from a tubular module so that it can be transported in a compact form. This dome then deploys to provide a support structure for the construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a rover-operated 3D printer to create a protective shell to protect the occupants against cosmic radiation and micrometeoroid impacts. 

 To test this concept, UK-based Monolite Ltd supplied the device platform for the base study with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a six meter frame. This was used to spray a binding solution onto a sand-based building material. As a demonstration, they produced a 1.5 tonne building block. 

 The design is based on a hollow closed-cell structure which gives a good combination of strength and low mass. This technology is conventionally used to create artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from sea waves. Now this same process can be adapted to build a permanent human settlement on the moon. 

But how might AM also transform space missions in future? Manned missions could carry 3D printers with them to ensure full self-reliance as they travel many months or years away from spare parts. Any damaged item could be replaced. As it has recently become possible to 3D print carbon fibre reinforced plastics, structural components could also be produced. This approach has already been validated by ESA by manufacturing and functionally testing parts that have been damaged during past manned missions, including screws, clamps and even specialist laboratory jigs. 

 This technology could even be extended to satellites in space which could self-print new subsystems to provide new capabilities. Delicate parts could be manufactured in-orbit, avoiding the need to design around load limits for launch. 

Back here on Earth, the possibilities are just as exciting, slashing the energy and mass needed to produce super alloy-based structural systems which could in turn shrink the environmental footprint of the space industry. 3D Printing could become a vital tool for future space exploration missions, offering more sustainable and lower cost methods for exploring the far reaching corners of our solar system.