footprint on the moon

3D printing with moon dust could build the sci-fi lunar colony of the future

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Nov 20, 2018, 2:41 PM EST

If you want to start a lunar colony, you can’t exactly have everything shipped from Earth via next-day delivery. You have to use the resources already there — and that means moon dust.

An extended stay over 200,000 miles from Earth means we need to figure out how to make necessities out of moon dust. Except we don’t exactly have much lunar regolith over here except for those few containers that were auctioned off for $1.8 million. That obviously didn’t bother the ESA, who decided to make their own.

Moon living will need more than just a few inflatable habitats to hang out in. While NASA was able to send over some things from the home planet to its Apollo missions in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that would have hardly been enough for a sustainable colony. In collaboration with forward-thinking Austrian company Lithoz, the ESA has proven that we can rely on whatever is under our feet on the moon by 3D-printing screws, gears and a coin out of the closest thing to lunar soil we can create on this planet.

“These parts have the finest print resolution ever achieved with objects made of regolith simulant, demonstrating a high level of print precision and widening the range of uses such items could be put to,” explained ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya. “If one needs to print tools or machinery parts to replace broken parts on a lunar base, precision in the dimensions and shape of the printed items will be vital.

3D printing with fake moon dust

Credit: ESA

This isn’t your 3D-printed plastic superhero figure. Simulated regolith is more like a type of far-out ceramic. After it is ground down and passed through a sieve to achieve the right particle size, a light-reacting binding agent sticks the grains together. They are laid down layer by layer in the printer (kind of like the ones that do print plastic) and hardened by light exposure. The parts are then sintered, or made solid by heating alone, in a powerful oven.

“Thanks to our expertise in the additive manufacturing of ceramics, we were able to achieve these results very quickly. We believe there’s a huge potential in ceramic additive manufacturing for the moon,” said Lithoz CEO Johannes Homa.

This could mean one giant leap for lunar habitats. If this technology didn’t exist, future astronauts would have to rely on whatever spare parts they brought with them, and possibly a shipment from Earth when something had already been dysfunctional for months. With raw materials on the moon and a 3D printer on board, they would only need the design on hand to re-print the offending screw or hinge or…anything.

Too bad they aren’t making mugs out of moon ceramic. That would be the coolest way ever to sip your morning coffee.