London-based international architectural firm Foster + Partners has designed some pretty impressive structures over the past several years, including the Virgin Galactic spaceport, Apple’s “spaceship” campus, and the Kuwait International Airport. Today, however, the firm announced its involvement in a project that’s considerably more ambitious than any of those – as part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency (ESA), it will be exploring the possibility of 3D printing a lunar base for astronauts.

Given how awkward and expensive it would be to transport building materials from Earth, it certainly seems like it would make more sense to build lunar structures using the soil – known as regolith – that’s already present on the Moon. The project is aimed at developing methods of doing just that, using a robot-operated 3D printer to process the regolith on-site.

That said, the four-occupant base’s internal domed structure would be manufactured on Earth, and sent to the Moon folded up in a tubular module aboard a rocket. Once that module arrived at the building site near the Moon’s south pole – where there would be almost perpetual sunlight, and thus less severe temperature extremes – the dome would be inflated, extending out from one end of the tube as it did so.

The inflatable dome, which would serve as the base's underlying structure (Image: Foster + Partners)

Once the dome was fully inflated, the 3D printer would be used to cover it with successive layers of a regolith-based material. That substance would form a stone-like protective shell, shielding the inhabitants from things like meteorites, gamma rays, and drastic fluctuations in temperature.

Using an existing large-scale D-Shape 3D printer, a 1.5-tonne (1.65-ton) block of the building material has already been built from a mixture of simulated regolith (actually terrestrial basaltic rock), magnesium oxide, and a binding salt. Other consortium partners – Italian space research firm Alta SpA and Pisa-based Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna university – have conducted 3D printing experiments in a vacuum chamber, to simulate the lunar environment. They determined that it is indeed possible, although factors such as the control of lunar dust still need to be addressed.

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

In a similar but unrelated project, scientists at Washington State University have also used simulated regolith to 3D-print objects.

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