By combining moondust and lasers, Laser Zentrum Hannover (LZH) and the Institute of Space Systems (IRAS) of the Technical University of Braunschweig are experimenting with ways to use 3D printing to build lunar colonies. Slated to fly in 2021, the new Moonrise laser system will be incorporated in the Berlin-based PTScientists unmanned lunar rover and will be used to demonstrate if it is possible to turn lunar regolith into practical building materials.
With various space agencies and private companies committed to setting up long-term human outposts on the Moon, the problem of building the habitats and other structures goes from thought experiments to a list of practical problems. The biggest of these is almost certainly the massive costs of moving materials to the Moon with cost per kilogram, according to LZH, working out to about €700,000 (US$782,000).
The Moonrise laser printing system is based on the idea that the best alternative to shipping materials to the Moon would be to use the local resources as a substitute. Still in the experimental phase, the 3 kg (6.6 lb) laser is designed to see if the regolith or lunar topsoil can be melted down and made into building structures.
Moonrise has been under development for nine months with the laser itself and its optics already very far along, but the team says that they not only need to get the core technology right, but also to create a proper synthetic version of the regolith to allow for Earthside testing.
In addition, the laser needs to be hardened from an engineering point of view so that it can handle the shocks and vibrations involved in getting it to the Moon as well as the massive temperature extremes that it will encounter.
During the planned test on the Moon's surface, the laser will be installed on a rover and then used to melt the regolith in a controlled fashion to produce predefined shapes with high-resolution cameras recording the process and results.
"The planned direct proof, that we are able to process lunar regolith with already available hardware components is crucial for the planning of future missions," says Stefan Linke from IRAS. "Thus, larger and more sustainable projects on the surface of our cosmic neighbor are becoming possible."
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