Rather than pre-building homes on Earth and sending them into space, a 3D printer will be sent up to the moon via a rocket to complete the job there. The printer will be tasked with building housing structures in layers, using a specialised lunar concrete made with components of the moon’s surface.
The moon’s cratered surface is made up of mineral fragments, known as ‘rock chips’. Comprising of various-sized chunks, these rock chips are what make the surface of the moon extremely dusty and rugged.
The only problem is that when this dust is disturbed, it billows up into noxious clouds that are poisonous to humans when inhaled. The dust is also extremely abrasive and can cut like glass.
It sounds scary, but many scientists say that if it is used correctly, they believe that collecting the moon’s mineral dust and transforming it into concrete could be a key solution to living there.
That said, 3D printing in space will have its challenges.
Though the laws of chemistry are the same, there will be challenges related to physics. As a result, any equipment destined for the moon must undergo rigorous testing on Earth to ensure its ability to endure the harsh lunar environment.
This is where the Marshall Space Flight Centre comes in.
The centre boasts over a dozen testing chambers where various building components are subjected to radiation and thermal vacuum conditions mirroring those encountered in space.
In February 2024, its 3-D printer will undergo its first inaugural test within the largest of these chambers. NASA scientists are also working on developing a synthetic lunar concrete that can substitute for moon-made materials during the tests conducted on Earth.
In a laboratory at Marshall, researchers are experimenting with artificial moon dust that has been moulded into cylindrical shapes. These cylinders resemble concrete chunks that can fit in the palm of your hand and exhibit remarkable resilience when exposed to a plasma torch, withstanding temperatures of up to 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
This promising outcome gives scientists confidence that when they eventually work with actual lunar materials, the structures will perform well even in the face of searing temperatures caused by rocket landings.
Finally, we all know there’s no IKEA on the moon – and houses are far more than just walls and doors.
People living on the moon will require furnishings for seating and sleeping, and various other essentials to support their daily activities.
Jennifer Edmunson, the lead geologist at Marshall Space Flight Center is collaborating with universities and private enterprises to develop prototypes for space-friendly furniture and interior design.
Notably, NASA’s Ames Research Center has joined forces with Stanford University researchers to extract specific minerals from synthetic lunar soil. These minerals are then employed to create a range of coloured tiles, such as green, grey, and white, with potential applications extending to kitchens and bathrooms within space habitats.
It’s likely that all of this will require a lot of trial and error. But if all is successful, this could lay the foundation for eventually having entire neighbourhoods on the moon – or at the very least, a couple of Airbnb’s.
Eventually, a similar project could be extended and carried out on Mars – something NASA’s team says will be a goal to strive for in the near future.