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Moon Houses on the Horizon for NASA

eExploring how to shelter its next generation of lunar pioneers, NASA is partnering with a design firm to 3D print a structure made of a moon-soil simulant.

HOUSTON (CN) — Buffeted by solar wind and micrometeors, the moon is no place to roll out a sleeping bag for a night of stargazing. But exploring how to shelter its next generation of lunar pioneers, NASA is partnering with a design firm to 3D print a structure made of a moon-soil simulant.

As the body of research on climate change grows, the prospect of Mother Earth evicting mankind seems all but inevitable.

A study released this week found that even if human-caused emissions were eliminated this year, average global temperatures would still rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit and oceans 8 feet by 2500.

Against the expanse of the Milky Way, the moon, at 238,900 miles from Earth, is at our doorstep and is the logical first site for extraterrestrial human colonies.

But we cannot send conventional building materials to it.

“Typical construction materials such as concrete and steel are too heavy and bulky to launch on a rocket to the Moon and especially Mars. A solution to that problem is using local materials already at the destination,” said Leejay Lockhart, public affairs officer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

This week, NASA announced a collaboration with AI SpaceFactory, a New York construction firm, in which they will develop a material akin to the dust and crushed rock, called lunar regolith, covering the moon’s surface and use it to 3D print a structure in a vacuum chamber to simulate conditions on the moon.

NASA is not starting from scratch because its astronauts collected lunar soil samples on Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s. And one can find on Earth similar volcanic soil as to what is on the moon, according to Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.

“So Hawaii is a great place to do that, sometimes you can bring it from some of the volcanoes there. There’s places in Utah and Arizona, Greenland, these are places that have gone through very similar geological processes,” Abbud-Madrid said in a phone interview.

The similarities only go so far, although lunar regolith closely resembles terrestrial sand.

“Soil on Earth, you know like a sandy beach, is a very rounded particle that has been eroded by water and wind,” Abbud-Madrid said. “But on the Moon since there’s no atmosphere, there’s no wind, there’s no water, the particles are very jagged edged, they are very sharp, they are extremely abrasive. They tend to cling to one another very quickly. So the behavior is very different.”

Another challenge will be building the structure in a vacuum chamber, which is 5-by-4 feet wide and 5-feet tall, according to Nathan Gelino, a principal investigator in the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

“The chamber will have simulant regolith in it that can be set to lunar temperatures. The primary function of the chamber is to reduce the amount of gas inside to a level that approximates the conditions on the lunar surface,” Gelino said.

According to NASA, the atmospheric density on the moon’s surface is comparable to the density of the thermosphere — one of the outer fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere where the International Space Station orbits.

To simulate conditions on the moon, NASA and AI SpaceFactory must remove nearly all air from the vacuum chamber, which could be problematic for the 3D printer.

“If you remove air from whatever experiment you are doing all of a sudden there’s no humidity,” said Abbud-Madrid, “all of a sudden it seems the pressure has gone down significantly, you start evaporating all sorts of things. Water would evaporate quickly, lubricants will go away, anything will just evaporate … And so the process changes radically.”

Still, AI SpaceFactory has proven it is adept at innovating with 3D printers.

AI SpaceFactory's RedEgg prototype for a NASA contest to build housing for Mars. It was built by a 3D printer. (photo from AI SpaceFactory's website)

Last year it won $500,000 from NASA for winning the agency’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge by building a prototype Martian habitat, a cone-shaped structure it made with a mixture of basalt and a biopolymer developed from corn and sugarcane, which NASA found was 50% stronger than concrete.

If successful, the new project could give NASA the means for a variety of construction projects on the moon, building flat pads for rocket launches and landings, roads and structures to house equipment and humans as part of the agency’s Artemis program, in which it aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send the first woman to its surface.

But experts say if Artemis is to flourish NASA must figure out how to extract water from ice deposits at the moon’s poles, which could be converted into oxygen for breathing, drinking water and hydrogen rocket fuel.

Over the next three years, NASA plans to deploy several small satellites to circle the moon and identify and map which of its craters contain accessible ice deposits, though some say the exploration needs to be hands-on, with astronauts taking core samples, to figure out how much ice is in it.

There may be structures on the moon by then thanks to the NASA-AI SpaceFactory partnership, but they likely won’t be places one can get out of their stuffy spacesuits, kick their feet up and take in views of Earth.

During the construction phase, Abbud-Madrid said, the builders will have to wear space suits just like the Apollo astronauts did. Converting the structures to livable spaces will require another advance.

“The habitat will protect you against micrometeorites, radiation and the like, that will be the main construction,” he said. “Then inside you need to put some sort of inflatable fabric, so that then you can go inside, lock it, and pump it with oxygen and nitrogen, so you can breathe. Then you can take off your suit.”

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