ESA: Building a lunar base with 3D printing

The ESA released this interesting item about building structures on the Moon with large scale 3D printers:

Building a lunar base with 3D printing

31 January 2013: Setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it from local materials. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil.

“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA.

“Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

Foster + Partners 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.

A hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of bird bones – provides a good combination of strength and weight.

1.5 tonne building block

The base’s design was guided in turn by the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, with a 1.5 tonne building block produced as a demonstration.

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” added Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team.

“The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

Multi-dome base being constructed

“As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials,” remarked Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group. “Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”

The UK’s Monolite supplied the D-Shape printer, with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 6 m frame to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material.

D-ShapeTM printer

3D ‘printouts’ are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves.

“First, we needed to mix the simulated lunar material with magnesium oxide. This turns it into ‘paper’ we can print with,” explained Monolite founder Enrico Dini.

“Then for our structural ‘ink’ we apply a binding salt which converts material to a stone-like solid.

“Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 m per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 m per hour, completing an entire building in a week.”

Italian space research firm Alta SpA worked with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna on adapting 3D printing techniques to a Moon mission and ensuring process quality control. The effect of working in a vacuum was also assessed.

“The process is based on applying liquids but, of course, unprotected liquids boil away in vacuum,” said Giovanni Cesaretti of Alta.

“So we inserted the 3D printer nozzle beneath the regolith layer. We found small 2 mm-scale droplets stay trapped by capillary forces in the soil, meaning the printing process can indeed work in vacuum.”

3D-printed sculpture

Simulated lunar regolith is produced for scientific testing by specialist companies, typically sold by the kilogram. But the team required many tonnes for their work.

“As another useful outcome, we discovered a European source of simulated lunar regolith,” added Enrico.

“Basaltic rock from one volcano in central Italy turns out to bear a 99.8% resemblance to lunar soil.”

“This project took place through ESA’s General Studies Programme, used to look into new topics,” Laurent commented.

“We have confirmed the basic concept, and assembled a capable team for follow-on work.”

Lunar south pole

Factors such as controlling lunar dust – hazardous to breathe in – and thermal factors will require further study.

3D printing works best at room temperature but over much of the Moon temperatures vary enormously across days and nights lasting two weeks each. For potential settlement, the lunar poles offer the most moderate temperature range.

Kepler planet hunter back in action

The Kepler orbital observatory is back to planet hunting after taking ten days off to give one of its reaction wheels, which had been showing signs of abnormal friction, some days off  (see earlier post here) : Kepler resumes data collection after safe mode – Spaceflight Now

Managers put Kepler into safe mode Jan. 17 when reaction wheel no. 4, one of the spacecraft’s three remaining reaction wheels, showed rising friction. The reaction wheels were spun down and the observatory switched to chemical rocket thrusters to control its attitude for a 10-day “wheel rest” period.

The wheel rest period was designed to allow the wheel bearings to cool and lubricant to redistribute inside the wheel housings, hopefully resolving the friction issue.


Engineers will review the performance of wheel no. 4 over the next month to evaluate the effectiveness of the wheel rest scheme, NASA said in an update. More wheel rest periods may be needed in the future if the procedure proves effective, according to Sobeck.

Titan & Europa essay contest – Grades 5-12

Here’s a message from the  Titan and Icy Worlds  Education and Public Outreach Teams at NASA JPL:

Dear Teachers and Students,

NASA is holding an essay contest about Saturn’s moon Titan & Jupiter’s moon Europa for students in the United States in grades 5-12.

.The contest deadline is February 28, 2013.  The contest website is here:

Questions about the Titan & Europa essay contest can be sent to:

The topic of the Titan & Europa essay is either a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan or to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Both of these missions would study a world that is exciting for astrobiologists(*).Your assignment is to decide which of the proposed missions would be more interesting to you, and why. Be creative, be original, and ask good questions that you hope the mission would answer.

The Titan mission would include a Titan orbiter and a Titan balloon. The Europa mission would include a Europa orbiter and a Europa lander. The orbiters, balloon, and lander would each have science instruments to study either Titan or Europa.

In your essay, you can include information about what science instruments you would put on the orbiter and balloon or lander, if you wish, based on what you hope to find on Titan or Europa.

Winning essays will be posted on a NASA website, and winners and their classes will be invited to participate in a videoconference or teleconference with NASA scientists.

Contest videos about Astrobiology, Titan, and Europa can be found here:

(*) Astrobiologists are scientists who study the origins, evolution, future and distribution of life in the universe. The main question astrobiologists are trying to answer is: “Is there life beyond Earth?”

Good luck!

Best wishes,
The Titan and Icy Worlds NASA Astrobiology Institute Education and Public Outreach Teams