Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How NASA plans to melt the Moon and build it on Mars


In June a four-person crew will enter a hangar at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and spend a year inside a 3D-printed building. Made from a slurry that – before drying – looks like neatly laid out lines of soft-serve ice cream, Mars Dune Alpha houses crew quarters, shared living spaces and dedicated areas for medical care and growing food. The 1,700-square-foot space, which is the color of Mars soil, was designed by architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group and 3D printed by Icon Technology.

Experiments inside the structure will focus on the physical and behavioral health challenges people will face during prolonged stays in space. But it is also the first structure built for a NASA mission by the Moon to Mars Autonomous Construction Technology (MMPACT) team, which is now preparing for the first construction projects on a planetary body beyond Earth.

When humanity returns to the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program, astronauts will first live on an orbiting space station, on a lunar lander, or in inflatable surface habitats. But the MMPACT team is preparing to build durable, long-lasting structures. To avoid the high cost of shipping material from Earth, which would require massive rockets and fuel expenditures, this meant using pre-existing regolith, turning it into a paste that could be 3D-shaped into thin layers or different shapes. can be printed.

The team’s first off-planet project is tentatively scheduled for late 2027. For that mission, a robotic arm with an excavator, which would be attached to the side of a lunar lander, would sort and stack the regolith, says principal investigator Corky Clinton. Subsequent missions would focus on using semi-autonomous excavators and other machines to build living quarters, roads, greenhouses, power plants and the blast shield that would surround the rocket launch pad.

The first step towards 3D printing on the Moon would be to use lasers or microwaves to melt the regolith, says Jennifer Edmunson, head of the MMPACT team. Then it must be cooled to allow the gases to escape; Failure to do so may cause the material to become clogged with holes like a sponge. The material can then be printed to the desired size. How to assemble the finished pieces is still being decided. To keep astronauts out of harm’s way, Edmonson says the goal is to make the construction as autonomous as possible, but she adds, “I see the use of humans to maintain and repair our full-scale instruments in the future.” Can’t deny.”

One of the challenges the team is now facing is how to make lunar regolith into a building material strong and durable enough to protect human life. For one thing, since future Artemis missions will be near the Moon’s south pole, the regolith may contain ice. And for another, it’s not like NASA has mounds of actual moon dust and rocks to experiment with—just samples from the Apollo 16 mission.

So the MMPACT team had to create their own synthetic version.

Edmunson keeps buckets in his office of about a dozen combinations NASA hopes to find on the moon. The formations contain basalt, varying mixtures of calcium, iron, magnesium, and a mineral called anorthite that do not occur naturally on Earth. Edmonson suspects that the white and shiny synthetic anorthite being developed in collaboration with the Colorado School of Mining is representative of what NASA hopes to find on the lunar crust.

Even when the team feels they can do a “reasonably good job” of geographical matchingchemical properties of regolith, Clinton says, “It’s very difficult to make geotechnology Properties, size of various small pieces of aggregate as they are formed by collisions with meteorites and whatever else has hit the Moon over 4 billion years.