3D printing has come a long way in a very short time, with products such as furniture, food, and even bones made using this technology. But a team from UNSW plans to push the limits of 3D printing even further with an extraordinary proposal.
UNSW Computational Design wants to use a 3D printer to build a house. But not just an ordinary house in the suburbs, 385,000 km from Earth. Using this technology, they hope to one day build housing on the Moon, with a view to establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface.
Associate Professor M. Hank Haeusler, Director of Computational Design (CoDe), School of Built Environment, says it’s not as crazy as you might think.
“With the possibilities of 3D printing, we no longer need to think about housing in the traditional way,” he says. “Through computer design, we can take all kinds of scientific data, put it into a computer program, and have a remote-controlled 3D printer build complex geometric structures here on Earth, and one day, the Moon.”
Open for inspection
In fact, the dream of one day building on the Moon is about to come true. UNSW CoDe recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Australian construction and construction company, Luyten, to begin research and development of a specialized 3D printer capable of building on the Moon, named Galactic Platypus.
The machine itself would be compact, using lightweight metal composites for its structure, ideal for space transportation, says Luyten co-founder and CEO Ahmed Mahil. It would be able to expand to produce a design up to 9m x 12m in height and length and [once on the Moon] can be installed and remotely controlled in less than 30 minutes.
“The beauty of Luyten’s printer is that it can unfold, like a transformer, and anything that fits under that frame, you can make completely autonomously via satellite with the right script,” A/Prof. Haeusler said.
Teacher. Haeusler says the remote building process on the Moon would be similar to the remote building process on Earth, just at a greater distance.
“The Moon poses challenges similar to those encountered when building in remote regions of Earth using traditional building methods,” he says. “But by using local materials and 3D printing, you can not only overcome the challenges of material cost and labor shortage, but also manufacture much faster and with much higher precision.”
The proposed lunar dwelling would not resemble a traditional family home, at least at first. Instead, the structure would be a protective outer skin 3D printed from the Moon’s surface material.
“The printer would print a protective shell structure on the surface of the Moon”, A/Prof. Haeusler said. “It would build a shelter around a separate lunar landing capsule that astronauts live in to form the outer layer needed to protect them from cosmic radiation, solar radiation, and meteorites.”
Read more: Space junk: Houston, we have a problem
A lunar challenge
But building on the Moon comes with a unique set of challenges. Any dwelling must be strong enough to withstand moonquakes that can last up to 5 hours while supporting extreme temperatures between day and night. Additionally, the only local material available is lunar regolith.
Once deployed, the 3D printing technology would also require assistance from other space technologies, including regolith mining rovers to harvest and sinter lunar regolith into a printable form for the 3D printer.
“We can look at the chemical ingredients of the regolith in the material computationally and feed that data into the computer program we are developing to instruct the 3D printer to generate a 3D geometric structure suitable for the conditions of the moon materials at the location. “, A/ Prof. Haeusler said.
While the team has already started simulating lunar materials and testing different shelter designs, the technology is still a long way from being used on the Moon. However, if funding allows, they can develop a prototype of the lunar structures on Earth within the next three years.
“Using NASA’s technology readiness level, we first need to perform a lot of testing and trials in the lab environment where we can simulate the design and the natural environment through computer modeling,” said the professor A/Prof. Haeusler said.
“Then we will look to build an individual prototype on Earth that we can test in an environment that simulates material conditions on the Moon – most likely in a location near Newcastle that NASA has recently approved – and we will continue until what we were getting to the moon.
He says if humans ever hope to settle on Mars, then building on the Moon is the next step.
“There is a growing demand for computational exploration on the Moon, especially as we plan to become a multiplanetary species,” he says.
“If we want to create a colony on Mars and other planets, we’ll want to try building on the Moon first to test how things can be done in space conditions.”
Read more: Mars colonization likely by 2050, says UNSW expert – but not at levels predicted by Elon Musk
To the moon and back
Teacher. Haeusler says doing research is also necessary to solve the problems we face on Earth. He says building on the Moon will have direct lessons that can be applied to challenges such as climate change and affordable housing.
“The knowledge we generate by building on the moon can be directly translated into building housing for extreme climates such as heat or solving housing problems in remote indigenous communities – two topics we are studying in parallel,” says -he.
Ultimately, he says building on the Moon will also help us enjoy our life on Earth.
“Whenever you ask an astronaut about the experience of being in space and looking back on Earth, he says he suddenly realizes how precious Earth really is.
“I think building on the Moon will give us a new perspective at this distance and maybe a new purpose to reconsider how we use our resources.”