Researchers use fake moon dust to 3D print objects in a technique that could be helpful in future lunar missions

By Elton Gomes

In order to support a future base on the Moon, researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) have experimented with 3D printing and baking fake moon dust into various objects such as screws, gears, and a coin, with the hope that actual moon dust could one day be used to replace parts on a lunar base. The 3D objects were printed at an Austrian company Lithoz.

“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,” Advenit Makaya, a materials engineer at ESA, said in a statement.

Makaya added, “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.”

Scientists from the ESA partnered with Lithoz to develop a 3D printing technology that initially mixed artificial regolith with a special kind of glue – this glue hardens when exposed to light. Regolith is essentially a simulation of moon dust. The mixture of regolith and glue was then 3D printed into a particular shape and baked inside an oven. The process was similar to how ceramics are hardened inside a kiln.

“Normally their print process is based on materials such as aluminium oxide, zirconium oxide or silicon nitride. What we’ve demonstrated here is that it can also work with raw regolith, which is a collection of various different types of oxides, chiefly silicon oxide but also aluminium, calcium and iron oxides, among others,” Makaya said.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. A 3D printed object is created by using additive processes. In an additive process, successive layers of material are incrementally added until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. 3D printing allows you to produce complex shapes using less material as compared to traditional manufacturing methods.

Why are scientists 3D printing objects with fake moon dust?

Both private and government space agencies have expressed serious intentions about building a human-inhabited base on the Moon, with plans being developed in this regard.

However, setting up a base on the moon takes a lot of fuel, cargo capacity, and money. Building a lunar base from scratch will require a lot of materials — this means that it would be extremely expensive to transport multiple parts from the Earth to the moon, particularly since repairs would require backup pieces.

This is why researchers came up with a more sustainable option. Instead of bringing things, they could simply be made on the moon using regolith and a 3D printer. Building materials could thus be easily and cheaply created on the moon itself.

What possibilities could open up?

The project is still in its experimental phase, and there remains a lot of testing to be done — this included testing whether the 3D objects are strong enough to stand up to the stresses of real-world use.

But if the project does work out, the possibilities certainly are exciting. 3D printing object using fake moon dust could make existence on the moon easier. It could also make future lunar missions less reliant on the Earth.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius

3D PrintingEuropean Space AgencyLunar BaseMoon