Printing with Moondust – The Future of Human Life in Outer Space

3D printing has proven to know no limits, so it was only a matter of time when this technology leaves Earth and travels as far as humankind has been (and possibly even beyond). Here’s how the technology could enable lunar living!

Rocket Launch

July 21, 1969 marked a historic date in time. Commander Neil Armstrong of the spaceflight Apollo 11 was the first man in human history to step onto the surface of the Moon. Only minutes later, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin came after him and until today, ten more people followed their footsteps. The last to walk on the Moon were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

Today, science is developing rapidly and the prospect to establish a human colony on the surface of the Moon or Mars is becoming increasingly probable. At the moment, the main problem of building the first off-planet colony is the high cost of spaceflight, but that doesn’t stop scientists from working out plans. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, could play a decisive role in the implementability of human life in outer space.

Terrestrial Technologies and Extra-Terrestrial Materials

In recent years, 3D printing has proven to know no limits: Houses, prosthetics, bridges and motorcycles are produced using additive manufacturing, so it was only a matter of time when this technology leaves Earth and travels as far as humankind has been (and possibly even beyond). In 2016, the company Planetary Resources unveiled the world’s first 3D-printed object made from bits of an asteroid. The principle of this is the key to using 3D printing for lunar living: Printing with raw materials that are available on the Moon.

The dream of most people more or less distinctly involved with space travel and 3D printing is to construct entire buildings from lunar rocks directly on the surface of the Moon. Experts for additive manufacturing have found, however, that it’s probably more practical to use these resources – moondust in particular – to supply lunar manufacturing labs with replacement components for all sorts of equipment.

The Major Challenges of 3D Printing in Space

The advantage of bringing additive manufacturing to the Moon is easily explained: Whenever there are defect parts in the necessary equipment and machinery that enable lunar living, they can be replaced with printed replicas. The costs and time it takes to produce this part on Earth and transport it via rocket to the Moon are eliminated. The challenges of this idea, however, still need to be sorted out.

3D printing has been developed for use on Earth, which means that there’s a need for consistent levels of gravity and temperature. As we all know, gravity works a little bit differently on the Moon than it does on Earth. When on Earth, a fully suited Apollo astronaut weighs about 500 pounds, for example – on the Moon, it’s only about 80 pounds. This, of course, complicates the printing process.

Moondust, or regolith is a loose, powdery material that’s at first not suitable as printing material for bricks or cement. It would be necessary to mix this powder with a liquid binder exported from Earth.

A Solution is in Sight

The Laser Zentrum Hannover is currently working on a method to make regolith printable without adding liquids. The solution: laser technology! The researchers use a laser to turn a very small amount of energy into heat. This heat, then, melts and fuses together grains of regolith to form a thin but solid slice of the material. This process is repeated multiple times until it results in a three-dimensional object.

For now, the technology is not suitable for building large structures, but rather smaller, precisely designed highly detailed objects such as dust or water filters. The technique could not yet be tested with real regolith. Instead, the researchers settled on a material that imitates its bulk chemical and mineral composition. The next step will be to test 3D printing with the real moondust until hopefully one day, there’ll be 3D printers installed on the surface of the Moon.

To read about how self-replicating 3D printers could print an entire lunar-base from material found on the Moon, click here!

Printing moondust sounds like it’s coming straight from a science fiction novel, but it’s slowly becoming reality. What other unusual application fields can you think of for 3D printing? Tell us in the comments!