We've known for years that the European Space Agency was pursuing research aimed at developing a lunar base. And the ESA has continued to build on the concept alongside a team of architects — today, it released a video that shows more specifics about the idea, which would use lunar soil to print a habitat for four astronauts.
It's a doozy of a plan, mainly because the moon is an extraordinarily unfriendly place for humans. Consider that there's no atmosphere — which means no protection from solar radiation and asteroids, not to mention no air. All of this brokers questions like "then why are we trying to live on it?," which can be answered with a myriad of responses including "because it's there" and "as a field test for missions to mars and other planets."
Last week, the ESA hosted a workshop called Additive Manufacturing for Space Applications for 350 experts in aerospace engineering and construction in the Netherlands. The idea, the agency says, is to bring together as many disparate experts as possible to push forward the technology we use for space exploration.
For example, one project on view was a 3D-printed mechanism that deploys solar cells. According to the ESA, it uses 80 per cent less mass than other options and can only be produced by 3D printing:
But other ideas discussed at the workshop were on a larger scale — including those from the architects at Norman Foster and Partners, who the ESA tapped to develop the lunar habitat concept, and who produced this new video about their idea.
To protect our little moonlings, the ESA must construct a super-strong habitat that can ward off radiation and impacting objects — and they plan to do it using a remotely operated rover-style bot. After launching a craft from Earth and shuttling a lander down to the surface of the moon, deploying this autonomous bot and inflating a kind of house-sized bladder that will serve as the scaffolding for the construction process.
Think of it as the vertebrae, whereas our earthly scaffolding is more like an exoskeleton. Over the course of three months, the ESA's little bot will pick up moon dust, mix it with a printing material, and spit it out through a nozzle affixed to a 6-axis robotic arm.
Programmed to print around the bladder, the bot will use a honey-comb style pattern based on the molecular structure of bird's bones, which are strong but light thanks to their hollow core.
The ESA says the structure could be ready for human inhabitants within three months of the autonomous landing — that old interior bladder system becomes the liveable space, inside which two floors are set up to house living and research quarters. The module that deployed the scaffold? That's the entranceway to the habitat.
Obviously, this concept is extremely pie-in-the-sky. But it's important to note that the ESA is committed to developing concepts not just because they want to carry them out word-for-word, but because those concepts help develop broader ideas about manufacturing and fabrication in space. We might never get a lunar habitat that looks just like this — or anything at all — but the thinking taking place here might wind its way into any number of projects down the road. It will be interesting to see what else came out of the workshop over the next few weeks. [ESA]