Future astronauts might end up living in a moon base created largely from lunar dust and regolith, if a giant 3-D printing device can work on the lunar surface.
The print-on-demand technology, known as D-Shape, could save on launch and transportation costs for manned missions to the moon. But the concept must first prove itself in exploratory tests funded by the European Space Agency (ESA)
"We will make very basic printing trials in a vacuum environment to verify if this is possible," said Enrico Dini, chairman of Monolite UK Ltd and creator of D-Shape.
Dini's D-Shape has created full-size sandstone buildings on Earth by using a 3-D printing process similar to how inkjet printers work. It adds a special inorganic binder to sand so that it can build a structure from the bottom up, one layer at a time.
The device raises its printer head by just 5 to 10 millimeters for each layer, moving from side to side on horizontal beams as well as up and down on four metal frame columns. Finished structures end made out of a marble-like material that's superior to certain types of cement. The buildings do not require iron reinforcing.
Such a concept might help future lunar colonists live off the land, as well as provide thick-walled structures that protect against solar storms or micrometeorites.
Space agencies have already begun testing other technologies meant to mine water and oxygen from the lunar regolith. NASA scientists have also played with possible recipes for a sort of lunar concrete based on moon dust.
But D-Shape offers the added attraction of having a somewhat straightforward building process that does not require huge amounts of construction machinery or many robot laborers.
Making the device work in a lunar environment may yet prove tricky. A first challenge involves making D-Shape function within the vacuum environment on a moon that lacks any meaningful atmospheric pressure. But Dini remains self-admittedly optimistic by nature.
"I'm not a scientist and I'm not a technician I'm an inventor," Dini told SPACE.com. He spent five years "facing unexpected issues and finding unexpected solutions" when he first designed D-Shape, before heeding the call from ESA.
Dini's Monolite has teamed up with an Italian aerospace firm called Alta, which has a large vacuum chamber in its Pisa facilities. They hope to build a small structure perhaps just 3 feet (1 meter) on each side during the vacuum trials.
Other partners working on the ESA project include Foster+Partners, a UK architecture firm, and Scuola Superiore Sant?Anna Perceptual Robotics Laboratory, an Italian lab that specializes in robotics and automation.
A second challenge comes from the cost of running D-Shape trials by using expensive lunar regolith simulant. Dini has tried developing a possible alternative to NASA's JSC-1 simulant that might work for his research. Structures built from such material will have to undergo resistance testing.
Even a functional D-Shape that works with lunar regolith would still face building limitations based on the amount of binder that a rocket could carry to the moon. Yet success would mean transforming lunar dust into part of the solution, rather than just a problem for astronauts and robotic explorers.
NASA researchers have experimented with a different type of on-site manufacturing device that could someday create spare parts or new materials for the International Space Station. D-Shape could also end up deploying beyond Earth for additional testing, if all goes well with the first phase.
The most important trials will be done in outer space," Dini said.
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