Can the first lunar habitat be 3D printed with moon dust?

written by Written by Rebecca Kearns

The last time someone set foot on the moon was in 1972. Now, the moon is back on NASA’s space agenda. This time around the agency isn’t just a visit – it plans to stay.

With the start of the Artemis missions next year, NASA aims to have astronauts on the moon in 2024 and expects to establish a permanent lunar base by the year End of the contract. This will be the first habitat ever built on an extraterrestrial surface, and the challenges are unprecedented.
Sending a large amount of building materials to the moon would be costly and time consuming. But Texas-based startup iKON says it has a sci-fi solution – 3D printing of a lunar base of moon dust.
ICON is working with NASA to develop technology that can convert moon dust into a concrete-like substance, says co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard. Moon dustLunar regolith, also known as lunar regolith, is the sand-like surface soil that covers the surface of the moon, and is made up of minerals and tiny shards of glass that formed over millions of years when meteorites hit the moon. It’s sharp, abrasive, and extremely sticky – if Apollo astronauts They found he was stuck in everything, including their spacesuits. There are a lot of them, which means there is a massive amount of raw materials if ICON succeeds.

The BIG concept for the Olympus project includes donut-shaped buildings that can be completely constructed with an ICON 3D printer. credit: Bjarke Ingels / ICON Group

The initiative is named after Project Olympus after the largest known volcano in the solar system – appropriately conveys the challenge of the size of the mountain the team faces. But Ballard isn’t just aiming for the moon. By designing a lunar habitat, he hopes to make building on Earth cleaner, faster, and cheaper as well.

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Olympus Project

ICON has been using 3D printing technology to build social housing in Mexico and Texas, since 2018. Using a mixture of concrete called lavacrete, its Vulcan printer can print about 500 square feet in 24 hours.

Ballard says the moon is “a radically different world”. From Earth, it looks like a calm and soft silver ball, but it is subject to high levels of radiation, violent lunar earthquakes, extreme temperature fluctuations, and repeated strikes by tiny meteorites crashing into their thin atmosphere, he says.

Turning moon dust into a building material is another big challenge. The team is experimenting with small samples of moon dust in the lab – and working on how to change its state using microwaves, lasers and infrared light, with “little or no additives,” says Ballard.

The research area in the proposed ICON lunar structure is illuminated by smart lights that simulate day and night on Earth, to help astronauts maintain a natural sleep-wake cycle.

The research area in the proposed ICON lunar structure is illuminated by smart lights that simulate day and night on Earth, to help astronauts maintain a natural sleep-wake cycle. credit: Bjarke Ingels / ICON Group

ICON has worked with two architecture firms, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch +), to explore the possibilities of 3D printing technology.

The team studied habitats in extreme environments, including the McMurdo Station in Antarctica and the International Space Station, and used their findings to create a range of lunar design concepts, Ballard says.

The architects had to think about how to create a safe and comfortable environment in which to live, says BIG founder, Jark Engels.

The proposal from SEArch + features a tall, multi-tiered structure with 3D printed protective petals protecting a core that will be built onto the ground, while BIG has designed a circular structure that can be completely printed on the moon.

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The BIG design includes a visible waterproof membrane that lines the bedroom walls – “good insulation against radiation,” says Engels – that gives astronauts extra protection while they sleep.

The radiation meant that the windows had to be kept to a minimum, so Engels carefully selected the building’s only building location – one that always faces the ground.

Imagine SEArch + Base "Astronauts would be allowed to go off the roof repeatedly," With landing pads, roads, parachutes and habitats, says co-founder Rebecca Baylis Friedman.

SEArch + envisioned a rule that “will allow astronauts to come and go frequently from the surface” with landing pads, roads, sheds and habitats, says co-founder Rebecca Biles Friedman. credit: SEArch + / ICON

Engels says the “dual” structure and external grids, which can be filled with loose moon dust, provide additional protection from radiation and meteorites.

In addition to the living and working quarters for the astronauts, the Lunar base will need to incorporate landing pads, roads, and storage parachutes. Until now, Engels says, the human presence in space has been “dominated”. With multiple industries working together, he hopes the first permanent structure on the moon’s surface will be an “ambitious” design as well as an engineering marvel.

A portal to the galaxy

NASA is beginning to explore 3D printing as a potential space building technology with launch 3D-printed Habitat competition In 2015. SEArch + and ICON both participated in the initiative, placing SEArch + first for its design. March 10th house.
With the launch of the Artemis missions next year, NASA’s first step toward the lunar habitat isGate“A space station in lunar orbit,” says spokeswoman Claire Skelly. The astronauts will live and work at the gate and head to the moon, and stay. In their landing craft For up to a week.
ICON's 3D printer, Vulcan, maps building outlines one layer at a time.  It can print up to 500 square feet in 24 hours.

ICON’s 3D printer, Vulcan, maps building outlines one layer at a time. It can print up to 500 square feet in 24 hours. credit: icon

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However, its goal is a permanent base from which to explore the moon in more depth and test technology for human survival in space. NASA wants to build facilities to house four astronauts for up to a month, Skelly says. It is an essential first step towards Mars and beyond.

Skelly says it has not yet been decided whether to create the lunar habitat using 3D printing, but “NASA may give ICON additional funding” and may give the company the opportunity to test its technology on the moon.

The use of moon technology on Earth

Balard is optimistic about the potential of technology on Earth, too. It is believed that the findings of the Olympus project could help solve the global housing crisis.

As a relatively new technology, there is little specific data on the advantages of 3D printing in construction. However, prof Review 2020 It indicates that it can reduce construction waste by 30% to 60%, labor costs by 50% to 80%, and construction time by 50% to 70% making construction cheaper, faster and more sustainable.
ICON's first 3D building project was a collaboration with the nonprofit New Story in Mexico, to build a social housing community for people who lost their homes in natural disasters.

ICON’s first 3D building project was a collaboration with the nonprofit New Story in Mexico, to build a social housing community for people who lost their homes in natural disasters. credit: Joshua Perez / ICON

While the technology is largely used in custom projects today, Ballard hopes that the possibility of using “more direct and localized raw materials” could open up more opportunities for 3D construction – which could be transformative for some. 1.6 billion People who still need decent housing on Earth.

“It’s a bit of a funny idea,” he says, “but it might turn out that the answers to our problems on Earth are on the moon or Mars.”

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