Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed up with architects and other businesses to explore the possibility of using 3D printers to build a base on the moon. Using lunar materials to build a base would reduce the need to transport supplies from Earth.
Lunar soil (called regolith) would be mixed into a sort of concrete and sprayed over an inflatable dome, building up layers to create a solid shell. The team has worked with simulated regolith made up of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides. The powder is fed into a 3D printer, which essentially melts it down and smooths it out. With printer speeds of between 2-3.5 meters an hour, a lunar base could be completed in as little as one week.
Designed for four inhabitants, the features cellular structured walls to shield inhabitants from radiation, meteorites, and extreme temperatures The partners have already built a 1.5-ton model and plan to eventually test the process at the south pole.
Two hundred years ago, pioneers used resources in their environment to build log cabins. Tomorrow’s pioneers will use local materials to “print’ their homesteads out of dust. If this technology can be perfected, it could eliminate many of the logistical roadblocks to space colonization (shameless self-advertisement: for more on the cost of living in space, see my previous post, “Rent On Mars”.)
If 3D printing can successfully create habitats on the Moon, it might be able to do the same on other planets. Martian soil should work just as well as regolith, right? According to members of the ESA team, the printers can produce more than buildings: they can also make tools, replacement parts, and other items. Picture a lunar colony where almost everything (except maybe food and sophisticated electronics) is printed. It would make things much easier for settlers, but it also raises the problem of dependence: what happens if the printer breaks?
Bring your imagination back into orbit for a second; these techniques could have many applications right here on Earth. Instead of importing things across nations, we could use plentiful local materials to create structures. This could be a huge advantage for rural or hard-to-reach areas; furthermore, it could play a role in revitalizing impoverished areas. A city devastated by a natural disaster could take years to rebuild. What if 3D printing could replace homes and critical buildings in mere weeks? Before we turn our plans to space, we should explore opportunities to apply this promising technology under our own atmosphere.