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Earthshine on the surface of the Moon.

Earthshine on the surface of the Moon. (Wikimedia Commons/Sylvain Billot)

Because science fiction refuses to cease entering the land of reality, a Moon base may be constructed on the rock itself using six-wheeled microwave 3D printers. Humans have thought for many years about the possibility of permanent stations on the Moon that house people, but that has always been out of our reach.

It was hard enough to get a few men and some equipment up there, let alone enough of either to build and maintain a base. Now, as 3D printers creep towards becoming household appliances, it seems they’ll be sent to the lunar surface to bring the world up-to-date with Moon.

SinterHab is a proposal which comes from space architects (what a job title!) Tomas Rousk, Katarina Eriksson, and Dr. Ondrej Doule. They’ve made plans for a lunar module that will be built solely by microwave 3D printers that make use of solar energy and moon dust. This eliminates the need for transporting materials or worries about needing power during construction. If successful, this plan has, rather than solving them, completely removed many of the barriers to creating buildings in space on foreign planetary bodies.

Tomas Rousek and ATHLETE

Tomas Rousek and ATHLETE

Their plans will make use of the Moon’s lack of atmosphere and the make-up of lunar dust, which includes nano-sized particles of iron. This means that, even using a conventional domestic microwave, it is possible to heat the dust to 1200 – 1500ºC. So, how does that help anyone? Well, if you keep the moon dust (lunar regolith) at just below its melting point inside a mould, the particles will being to fuse and the material is reformed into something of use. This a process called sintering, and gives us the possibility of creating entire cities on the Moon with little more than the dust that covers its surface.

The material that would be produced by this process and the conditions on the Moon are quite encouraging. Lunar regolith can be very abrasive and harmful, but it’ll be kept out by the walls created by the 3D printers. Gravity on the moon is a sixth of what it is on Earth, meaning structures can withhold six times the weight they would on our planet, while the lack of weather up there means buildings will have a much longer lifespan than the ones at threat from natural occurrences down here. Anything built on the Moon’s surface, excluding meteor strikes, can be expected to be around for a very long time.

The plan for the printers is to mount them on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory‘s ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) robot. The dust would be collected in a bulldozer type fashion by Chariot rovers who would then ship it over and feed to the ATHLETE robot. The sintering process would begin and the ATHLETE will produce whatever part of the lunar base is required. This system is called MC-FACS (Microwave Sinterator Freeform Additive Construction System). The ATHLETE has already been tested in the Arizona desert and it is hoped we’ll eventually see them on the Moon.

The SinterHab Moon Base.

The SinterHab Moon Base.

Now, sintering isn’t a new idea, even in the sense of using it in space. This project isn’t just about getting the right types of robots and rovers onto the Moon. The biggest part of this is the base’s design itself, something the three architects have put a lot of thought and effort into this. Current Moon base plans make use of rigid and inflexible constructions, while SinterHab will be made up of internal membrane systems which offer volumes four times that of the usual designs.

The geometry of bubbles has been used to make these designs. Bubbles are incredibly interesting aspects of the natural world and offer great insights into the distribution of materials over distances. Using information gleaned from them, it is possible to sinter flat walls using the equilibrium caused by neighbouring bubbles. This has given them the ability to create a base that is comfortable for the astronauts, while also incredibly practical. The size proffered by these plans will enable green gardens to be accommodated, meaning recycled air and water for those living there.

We still might be a bit far off from this though. Considering 3D printers at the moment, they aren’t up the level required to complete the tasks suggested above and then there is still the need for adaptations to make them workable on the Moon (protection will be needed from the machine-damaging regolith, shields will also be essential to stop radiation causing damage and circuit alterations to avoid electronical malfunctions such as those used in satellites). We still have a way to go with improving our printers as at the moment, they would just not be up to the task. This proposition though should help to encourage continuous research into improving their capabilities.

Apollo 15's James Irwin (Flickr/Astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander)

Apollo 15′s James Irwin (Wikimedia Commons/Astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander)

There is more to consider as well, to make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves. We reached the Moon back in 1969, based off how our technology is meant to increase exponentially, further advances have been fairly few and far between. For example, we have a much higher piece of tech wandering about on Mars right now, while the Moon has only mirrors and leftovers mostly. We are now aware that there is water on the Moon, along with other valuable materials, and even in the face of possible monetary gain, we are only creeping slowly closer to a permanent structure up there.

Google is offering a prize of a massive $20 million dollars to the first team who can land a rover on the Moon, make it move 500m and then successful relay high definition video back to Earth. That’s the criteria for success, although the teams obviously have bigger ambitions ($20 million is not enough to finance the whole project, there are commercial interests at play here too). There is still a point to be made though, the Moon fell out of fashion, as such, and only now are we beginning to concentrate on it as much as we should have already.

It is great that the SinterHab Project is in existence. It is these excellent plans that offer solutions that are within our reach and encourage investment from corporations and governments alike to further the technology we already. While people back in the 60′s saw Moon bases in their future, they are instead beginning to appear in ours. Space is, for better or worse, turning into a place of commercial interest, be it from Virgin space flights or the idea to mine asteroids out in the distance and, whether you like it or, money means progress. Be prepared to see a corporations flag flying above a lunar base before a country’s. The McLunar Base is a depressing reality.

After all, it was a company that took Hawking to space.

After all, it was a company that took Hawking to space. (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)