NASA is currently working with Texas-based tech startup ICON in developing a technology to turn moon dust into a construction material like concrete. The tech company will use its Vulcan 3D printer for the possible extraterrestrial construction by 2030.
As Artemis missions will begin in 2021, the U.S. space agency aims to bring astronauts to the moon by 2024 as well as build a lunar base by 2030, the first structure to be built outside of Earth.
NASA works with ICON 3D Tech to build a lunar base from moon dust
Lunar regolith, more popularly known as moon dust, is the sand-like topsoil covering the lunar surface. It is formed from tiny shards of glass and minerals after meteoroids hit the moon throughout millions of years.
Apollo astronauts found moon dusts on their space suits and everything they used on their mission. These are abrasive, sharp particles, and there are plenty of it in the moon, so ICON will have huge raw materials supply if it becomes successful in developing the necessary technology.
Project Olympus: ICON's struggles towards building a lunar base
ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard called the program Project Olympus. It is named after the largest-known volcano within the solar system. However, aside from the moon base, Ballard also aims to make terrestrial construction faster, cheaper, and cleaner using its 3D printing technology.
Since 2018, ICON has been building social housing in Texas and Mexico using its Vulcan 3D printer. It can imprint around 500-square-feet with lavacrete, a concrete-based mixture, in just 24 hours.
However, making building materials from moon dust is a huge challenge. The ICON team has been is experimenting with small moon dust samples in a lab and trying out ways to change its state using lasers, microwaves, and infrared light with "little to no additives."
More importantly, Ballard noted that the moon is a "radically different world." While it looks like a serene, silver orb, the moon is exposed to extreme temperatures, violent moonquakes, high radiation levels, and frequent micrometeorites strikes crashing into the thin lunar atmosphere.
This prompted ICON to work with architectural firms Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+) and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to exploit the possibilities using 3D printing.
They studied extreme environments such as the International Space Station and the McMurdo Station in Antarctica to create lunar base design concepts. SEArch+ designed a multi-story structure that has protective 3D-printed petals to shield an Earth-built core while BIG's plans to have a circular structure that is entirely printed on the moon.
The lunar base must include the astronauts' living and working spaces, storage sheds, landing pads, and roads. With multiple industries working together he hopes that the first permanent structure on the moon can be "aspirational" in design as well as an engineering marvel.
Meanwhile, NASA spokesperson Clare Skelly told CNN that it is not yet clear whether the lunar base will indeed be built using 3D printing. Yet, Skelly noted that "NASA could award ICON additional funding" and even allow the company to test its technology on the moon's surface.
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Written by CJ Robles