In this decade, several space agencies and commercial space companies will take us back to the moon. But unlike in the Apollo era, the goal of these programs is not “footprints and flags,” but to create the infrastructure necessary to keep coming back. NASA, ESA, Roskosmos and China in particular plan to set up outposts that will enable scientific research and a sustainable human presence.
ESA is currently showing what its outpost will look like at the 17th annual architecture exhibition at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. It is known as the International Moon Village and was designed by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with technical assistance from ESA. The same company recently unveiled a prototype of the skeletal metal component that will one day be part of the village’s lunar habitat.
The component was built by MX3D, an Amersterdam-based 3D printing architecture and design company specializing in Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). In this process, metal wires are fused with lasers to create lightweight metal objects with high structural strength. The company is known for making the 3D printed metal bridge that spans the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam (see below).
Her Majesty the Queen Máxima opens the first 3D printed steel bridge in the city of Amsterdam. Image credit: MX3D
The skeletal, smooth mesh pattern will be part of the flooring for each living space that together make up ESA’s International Lunar Village. The prototype was created with a robotic 3D printer made of 308LSi stainless steel over a period of approximately 10 days (246 hours), is 4.5 m (~ 15 ft) in diameter and has a total mass of approximately 395 kg (over 870 lbs.). ). Advenit Makaya, ESA’s Advanced Manufacturing Engineer, said in a recent ESA press release:
“This is a remarkable achievement by MX3D, which further underscores the potential of this additive manufacturing technology for an increasing number of space applications. The design flexibility and the ability to combine the printed structure with embedded surveillance systems – as demonstrated in the 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam – are to be explored for applications in space structures. This technique could also be considered for the in-situ construction of infrastructure during sustainable exploration missions, for example through the use of metallic raw materials obtained from the locally available regolith. “
The bottom component consists of six separate segments that were printed vertically before being welded together. When integrated into SOM’s design for a four-story semi-inflatable living space, the 3D-printed structure is supported by three pillars and covered by a series of floor panels. Unfortunately, SOM was unable to show it as part of their “Life Beyond Earth” exhibition, but manages to convey the size of the lunar habitats they are developing. Daniel Inocente, Senior Designer at SOM for the study:
“The innovative floor design is supported by pillars in the habitat walls that protrude towards the periphery and towards the center. We looked at the manufacturing constraints and used our analysis to interpolate a trajectory pattern that follows the angular limits of the 3D printing machines. The cross-section and the thickness were also analyzed and differentiated in order to reduce the total mass – with reduced thickness at the outer / inner borders. “
Image credit: SOM
The flooring and manufacturing process are in line with SOM’s habitat design, which requires four-story semi-inflatable trays that together form the International Lunar Village. Each semi-inflatable shell structure is four stories high and offers the highest possible volume-to-mass ratio. Once inflated on the lunar surface, each of these habitats will roughly double its original internal volume.
The module’s inflatable design allows it to be compressed for transport and then inflated to its full size once deployed on the lunar surface. But unlike previous inflatable designs that typically focused on the structural and mechanical systems, SOM’s design allows for an open interior space that optimizes the living experience. The floor element not only shows a key component of the proposed lunar habitat, but also demonstrates the effectiveness of the 3D printing process. Gijs van der Velden, CEO of MX3D, stated:
“This was a great opportunity, together with ESA and SOM, to show the potential of our technology for the production of light metal structures. It was a perfect project for MX3D to use its experience in printing topology-optimized metal structures. The optimal use of materials is a corporate goal at MX3D, because – just like in the design of space applications – every kilo less with an MX3D construction is a direct gain for the feasibility of a project. “
“The capabilities of MX3D demonstrate the inspiring connection between technology and art and are another great example of how far additive manufacturing has already arrived in our society,” adds Thomas Rohr, head of the Materials and Processes team at ESA. “For space applications, such technologies not only offer performance improvements, but can also lead to unprecedented and groundbreaking design solutions.”
The International Moon Village Project is a multidisciplinary project initiated by ESA and developed in collaboration with Jeffrey A. Hoffman – a former NASA astronaut and professor of aerospace at MIT. The project is also in line with the theme of the Architettura 2021 Biennale – “How will we live together?” – in which 112 participants from 46 countries take part.
The aim of this exhibition is to promote ideas for coexistence and sustainability as an answer to global problems. The International Moon Village exhibition is intended to show how space-related research and solutions for colonization in space are applied here on earth. As with all plans to establish a human presence on the moon, the key to the design lies in In Situ Resource Use (ISRU) and sustainability.
For example, ESA is planning to build the Moon Village in the southern polar region of the moon – aka. The South Pole Aitken Basin. The permanently shadowed craters that mark this region are abundant in water ice that could be harvested and used for drinking water, irrigation, and the production of oxygen gas and rocket fuel. In addition, electricity can be provided by installing solar panels around the crater edges, which are exposed to almost continuous daylight.
This arrangement allows for a certain degree of resource self-sufficiency, thereby reducing the need for replenishment missions from the earth and thus lowering the overall costs. As a manufacturing tool, metal 3D printing is also incredibly efficient and wastes far less material than traditional machining. These technologies will have similar applications here in the home, promoting sustainable housing solutions to reduce our impact on the natural environment.
Further reading: ESA, MX3D