NASA is looking at the idea of using 3D printing technology to build spare parts to spec on the International Space Station and on long term deep space missions, according to Scientific America. But the space agency is also exploring using the technology on a larger scale.
Txchnologist is suggesting a huge 3D printer could be used to build structures on the surface of the moon, using concrete made with lunar regolith.
How would the 3D print technology work to build structures on the moon?
NASA has awarded a grant to Behrokh Khosnevis, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California and director of the Center of Rapid Automatic Fabrication Technologies to explore the idea of using 3D printing to build on the moon. The 3D printer, using a technique that Khosnevis calls "contour crafting," pours out layers of concrete while robotic trowels smooth out the hardening concrete to any angle desired. Other robotic features would install plumbing, electrical wiring, and other amenities as the building is constructed. Khosnevis has shown that he can build a square feet of wall every 20 seconds.
Naturally the technology has a lot of Earthly applications, especially in places that require rapid building, such as disaster areas or third world slums slated for clearance and renewal.
Concrete on the moon?
Various studies have already been conducted exploring the possibility of using lunar dust and regolith to make concrete. One study, conducted by the University of South Alabama, suggested that lunar concrete using molten sulfur could be used to build things on the moon. Space.com reported on a study conducted by NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center to make concrete using carbon nanotubes, glue, and lunar dust or crushed rock. John Wickman, in an article in Ad Astra, pointed to a study for making concrete out of lunar dust, along with a binding fiber such as silica, aluminum, iron or magnesium. Of course, water may be abundant enough on the moon to make concrete the old fashion way.
Building on the moon
Building structures on the moon, considering its harsh environment, can prove challenging. Of course lack of an atmosphere and low gravity could also provide opportunities for space faring architects to design buildings impossible to construct on Earth.
Most scenarios of a lunar base feature small, inflatable modules made of Kevlar or something analogous to the rigid modules that make up the International Space Station. Thus life for the first lunar colonists would seem to be Spartan and uncomfortable.
But the idea of sending a 3D printing robot to the lunar surface to build elaborate structures out of local materials is a compelling one. It may be that the "little house on the mare" may be a little more comfortable than hitherto imagined.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker . He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.