3-D Printing on the Moon. From Regolith to Paste to Useful Objects and Structures

In the academic literature, review papers are widespread, and can help ground discussion on a specific topic by bringing new researchers up to speed as well as allowing experienced hands to catch up on some topics they might have otherwise missed.  Anytime a new one on a topic of space exploration is published, it helps move understanding of the entire discipline forward, even if it might not directly contribute to furthering research itself.  With that in mind, it can also be interesting for laymen to read them as well, as they are an excellent way to be quickly brought up to speed on a certain topic.

So if you happen to be interested in lunar exploration, or additive manufacturing more generally, you might be interested in a new review paper from a team at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.  It reviews the current state of the art in additive manufacturing (AM) technology and how it might be applied to building useful tools and structures on the lunar surface.

There are plenty of additional considerations when attempting to use AM technologies off-world, including energy consumption, gravity (or lack thereof), and weight / dimensions of the machine.  The authors make it clear that it is unlikely that any single AM technology will be usable in all situations on the lunar surface, and believe that there will be a combination of different technologies, including sintering and stereolithography.

Artist conception of a lunar base.
Architectural concept for the ESA’s proposed International Moon Village. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

That second process, which is commonly used to make ceramic and semiconductors, is also the focus of research performed by the same team.  They purchased some lunar regolith simulant with the intent to print it into a discernable structure.  

First they had to make the simulant into a type of feedstock that would be useful for printing.  They chose to make a paste by mixing it with a liquid, which resulted in a material that could be extruded using stereolithography.

Discussion of a lunar base made out of 3D printed materials.

Printing the material didn’t prove too much of a challenge either, with the resulting assembled parts not structured to be useful, but at least recognizable.  It is important to note that the entire process the team went through was done exclusively on Earth, with its gravity, power supplies, and equipment that could be purchased without having to blast it into space.  

Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done before anything functional is actually printed on the moon.  Doing so with simulant is an excellent first step down that path, and a review paper might prove to be an even more valuable resource in the long run when it helps to bring even more people into the world of 3D printing using the materials found in space.

Learn More:
Acta Astronautica: Regolith-based additive manufacturing for sustainable development of lunar infrastructure – An overview
Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology: 3-D printing to pave the way for moon colonization
Politecnico di Milano: 3-D printing and Moon dust: An astronaut’s kit for future space exploration?
UT: Europe’s Vision of a Future Moon Base. Made out of Moon Dust

Lead Image Credit: The lunar regolith simulant in original form (left), paste form (middle) and printed form (right). Credit: Isachenkov et all.