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European Space Agency developing 3D-printable lunar habitat

The European Space Agency (ESA) is teaming up with London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners and others to explore the possibility of building a lunar base using a 3D printer.

Using current 3D printing technology and local lunar soil to construct a secure habitat for humans to live in would potentially be far less expensive and simpler than lifting materials and manpower up from Earth and building a structure the old-fashioned way, ESA officials said.

"Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures. Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat," the ESA's Laurent Pambaguian, who is heading up the project, said in a statement.

Foster + Partners, the sought after designers of notable buildings around the globe, have "devised a weight-bearing 'catenary' dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts," according to the space agency.

The "logic" behind the proposed lunar habitat is similar to that of structures Foster + Partners has designed for "extreme climates on Earth ... using local, sustainable materials," said Xavier De Kestelier of the firm's Specialist Modelling Group.

For demonstration purposes, Foster + Partners produced a 1.5 ton building block (pictured, below) of the sort that would be used in the lunar habitat, using a U.K.-based Monolite's D-Shape mobile 3D printer. Instead of using lunar regolith, the demonstration block was fashioned using the D-Shape printer's "array of nozzles ... to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material."

The D-Shape's layering of material to create building materials is fast enough that Monolite founder Enrico Dini said a structure like the lunar base could be completed in just a week.

"First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into 'paper' we can print with. Then for our structural 'ink' we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid," Dini said, explaining the 3D printing process.

The simulated regolith, fashioned from "[b]asaltic rock from one volcano in central Italy, turns out to bear a 99.8 per cent resemblance to lunar soil," he added.

Pambaguian said challenges still remain for the team, including temperature variables on the Moon that could prove problematic for 3D printing and working out how to control against kicking up too much lunar dust, which would be hazardous to breathe for astronauts overseeing the construction of and living in a 3D-printed habitat.