The entire Apollo 11 mission to the moon took eight days. If we were to one day build permanent bases on the moon, future astronauts will have to spend more than just a few days. They would have to spend maybe months or years in space without a continuous lifeline to Earth. The question is how would the astronauts get a hold of everything they need. Sending equipment and supplies via rockets to build a long-term settlement on the moon would be extremely expensive.
Here’s where 3D printing comes into play. 3D printing would allow astronauts to construct whatever they may need using raw materials. While the excitement around 3D printing focuses on using it to construct buildings from lunar rocks, research has suggested that it may be more practical to use moondust to supply lunar manufacturing labs that turn out replacement components for all sorts of equipment.
Known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is made up of an advanced group of technologies that can produce physical products of almost any shape from digital designs. 3D printed parts can be made from metals, ceramics, plastics, and more. Another added benefit of 3d printing is minimal human involvement, you can set it to print and wait for the finished product. 3D printing has been developed for use on Earth as it relies on certain consistent levels of gravity and temperature; it has yet to be used on the moon or Mars.
Printing with moondust
The moon is covered in regolith, a loose and powdery material formed from millions of years of meteors bombarding the moon’s surface. This has changed the top layers of bedrock into a soil-like material. While you could use regolith to 3D print; it would require additional materials from Earth to mix with such as liquid binders.
Researchers have been studying ways to only use regolith. Their technique involves using a laser to turn a very small amount of energy into heat that can melt and fuse together grains of regolith to form a thin but solid slice of the material. By repeating this process multiple times and adding more layers in sequence, researchers eventually build a 3D object.
Each layer is less than 1 mm in thickness so building large structures such as walls would take an impractical amount of time. This technique is much better for producing smaller highly detailed objects such as dust or water filters. To figure out how to get this technique to work in space researchers carried out detailed investigations into both the material, processes, and how conditions on the moon would impact both.