back to article NASA awards $60m to Texas biz for 3D printing future Moon base

NASA has awarded a $57.2 million contract to Icon, a Texan 3D-printing startup, to build "space-based construction systems" on the surface of the Moon. Future astronauts will one day live and work on the Moon and NASA is planning to build infrastructure that will enable crews to survive and support themselves sustainably. They …

  1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Moon

    Could they 3D print the Moon itself so that NASA wouldn't have to bother with such long haul trips back and forth?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Moon

      I thought you would just do it CGI nowadays, nice to see that they are still using real models. But didn't Doug Trunbull die this year ?

  2. Tom Paine
    Facepalm

    Right....

    $10m a year for six years? Sure, that oughta do it.

    1. Snake Silver badge

      Re: Right....

      Glad I'm not the only one who did the quick maths, and thought so...

      This screams of pork-barrel economics, that some lobbyist / politician got this contracts awarded to someone in their district, rather just-because. Anyone with a brain will see the future pork-barreling of this project, the budget bloat and the never-ending reconsideration of the amount of this contract as the inevitable goals gets reassessed as unrealistic based upon the money.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Right....

        "...unrealistic based upon the money."

        How about plain unrealistic? The amount of power to run these printers makes them Earth bound. Although it looks like reading between the lines reveals that fact which makes this ICON company look fraudulent (or at least deceptive). If we're going to only print on Earth... myself or anyone else will do this contract for half the cost.

        There's definitely a corrupt politician involved.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They can just vacuum up the regolith. You don't even have to manufacture the vacuum yourself.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      And the dog hair that will inevitability end up in the feedstock will make the concrete tougher!

  4. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Who awards these contracts?

    I have used 3D printed parts for more than a decade and have a 3D filament printer sitting right here next to me. One thing that any experienced materials engineer knows is that feedstock is a huge issue. The moon isn't homogenous material on the surface which means some sort of processing needs to be done to provide any printing process with a consistent material. A liquid solvent carrier isn't going to work well on the moon; the temperature range is just too wide. Whatever binder that is used needs to be UV stable and have a very low Thermal Coefficient of Expansion. If the process will sinter materials in place, power will be a hurdle to overcome along with the feedstock and being able to create completely sealed buildings.

    If a company has a process that might work in the lunar environment, giving them a certain amount of access to facilities might be better than shoveling cash at them. The thermal-vac chamber at JPL where they test rovers and other space hardware is something that would be difficult for a company to replicate or justify the cost of building. That chamber also has lighting to simulate the sun.

    I was trying to find a "busted" video to see if it was the same group being awarded the contact that competed and sort of won a Mars habitat contest. I'm pretty sure it was Thunderf00t since it's the sort of thing he does, but I didn't find it and ran out of patience looking.

    My bet is finding a way to seal and use caves in the moon if they turn out to be of a useful size. Entrances have been photographed but nobody has had a look yet to see what they are about inside. It might change the requirements if buildings can be fabricated inside of a cave after it's had an airlock installed, been pressurized and heated. At that point, some sort of lunar concrete might be possible.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Who awards these contracts?

      >use caves in the moon....nobody has had a look yet to see what they are about inside

      If they seem warm and humid and rather unstable, I suggest you pay close attention to the toothiness of any stalactites and stalagmites near the entrance.

      1. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C

        Re: Who awards these contracts?

        or worse - no teeth and occasional gaseous emissions...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Who awards these contracts?

      3D printing doesn't necessarily need a binder. Using a laser to fuse together finely ground regolith will work so long as the laser is powerful enough, regardless of the regolith composition. The question is, will the resulting material have deisrable properties?

      A big problem not mentioned in the article is the lunar dust; mechanical parts already have a tendency to bind together in vacuum, and a coating of lunar dust won't help matters at all.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Who awards these contracts?

        "3D printing doesn't necessarily need a binder. Using a laser to fuse together finely ground regolith will work so long as the laser is powerful enough, regardless of the regolith composition"

        That's often known as sintering and feedstock is still an issue. If something in the mix is going to outgas when you hit it with a laser, that's going to cause flaws in the build. Power and spectrum is important in sintering. There are 3D printers (SLS) that sinter materials together and lots of papers on the process.

    3. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: Who awards these contracts?

      > I have used 3D printed parts for more than a decade and have a 3D filament printer sitting right here next to me. One thing that any experienced materials engineer knows is that feedstock is a huge issue. The moon isn't homogenous material on the surface ... needs processing ...

      But how do these problems change as you go up in scale? This is talking about making roads, landing pads and other large scale structures, which are going to behave grossly differently to the filament printers you are used to. Non-homogenous regolith? Dig up a mass of it, crunch it up over a sieve and stir well: may be all the processing required. Extrude it through a meter-wide nozzle or roll out a nice thick layer and sinter it a frickin' huge beam (maybe just from a thin but massive solar reflector, two weeks on and two weeks off).

      Even the existing Earth-bound house-sized 3D printers may be working at a small scale compared to their Lunatic plans.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Who awards these contracts?

        "This is talking about making roads, landing pads and other large scale structures, which are going to behave grossly differently to the filament printers you are used to."

        I'm used to many more processes than just filament printing. I just mentioned that I have one sitting right next to my computer. I am also planning to pick up a desktop resin printer next year and I am sending some parts out that will be made with a sintering process and that sort of machine makes no sense for me to own myself.

        Large scale parts are going to behave differently than anybody is used to.

        Here's a little bitty rocket digging a hole through 180mm of concrete including rebar and a further meter of dirt beneath. Turn your speakers down, it's loud:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIMY5Qx37oA

        For a landing pad on the lunar surface to accommodate a much bigger rocket, it's going to have to be much thicker and placing rebar isn't likely going to be an option. Masten Space was working on injecting material in the exhaust of the rocket to install its own landing pad, but imagine needing to carry all of that material from Earth. This was before Astrobotic bought Masten Space Systems out of bankruptcy so I don't know if there are still plans to keep working on the project.

    4. Lil Endian Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Who awards these contracts?

      So, rent some digs from The Major and live on soup? I can run with that!

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Bricking it

    Rather than 3D print entire structures, I'd be inclined to start small and "print" more general purpose components that had the flexibility to be used everywhere.

    Apart from anything else, that needs a much smaller "printer" and so is much easier to transport to Moon / Mars. Especially to start with

    P.S. I really hope that when they develop a regolith based building material, they call it "cheese"

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: Bricking it

      More cheese, Gromit? Only if it's green!

      I'd be tempted to start with something really simple - like breezeblock bricks. It wouldn't be anywhere near airtight until a layer of sprayable seal us added to the inside, and you'd probably have to carry your doorway/airlock along on the first trip, but they're stable and self-supporting... and there are already robots that can pile one on top of another (I think I've seen a video covering blocks like large legos that simply interlock external supports around insulation blocks).

      1. Pete 2 Silver badge

        Re: Bricking it

        > you'd probably have to carry your doorway/airlock along on the first trip

        Assuming the first few (dozen) landers are non-returnable, it seems to me that they would form the basis of the "buildings". Just build out from there.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Bricking it

        "large legos"

        Aaaaarrgggg! There's no such thing as "legos". Lego, with a capital L, is both singular and plural, like sheep. And large Lego is Duplo!!

    2. DJO Silver badge

      Luna Lego

      The problem with using bricks as opposed to a homogeneous structure is you need some form of mortar to seal between the bricks.

      The current thinking for the initial settlement is to use inflatable structures then to "print" regolith over them to provide strength and radiation resistance.

      Having said that producing giant regolith Legos would have plenty of applications once the first buildings are in place such as road beds or building frames that are then printed over saving the need to ship the inflatables.

      Other current thinking is to use the lava tubes as shelters but the chance of there being accessible lava tubes where they want to set up (near the poles) is a bit unlikely.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Luna Lego

        "The problem with using bricks as opposed to a homogeneous structure is you need some form of mortar to seal between the bricks."

        This problem has been solved .... all you need is 'Kragle'

        :)

        [Regolith + 'kragle' to make the 'Lego Bricks' & 'kragle' to seal the bricks together ..... simples :) ]

        I will accept $50Million for my solution .... please request Bank Details ASAP !!!

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Luna Lego

        "The problem with using bricks as opposed to a homogeneous structure is you need some form of mortar to seal between the bricks."

        If the gross structure is made from some form of brick, sealing can be a separate process. If the construction is underground using a cave, the structure would just deliver a regular surface, flat instead of just something sprayed on cave walls, and the seal layer just winds up plugging the holes between bricks and only needs to contain 1bar of pressure across tiny gaps.

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Bricking it

      :Apart from anything else, that needs a much smaller "printer" and so is much easier to transport to Moon / Mars. Especially to start with:

      I've seen some cool designs that do a continuous build in one axis rather than parts being limited in all three. If a process can be perfected for lunar conditions, bootstrapping to bigger and bigger printers will make sense.

  6. Bartholomew

    radiation shielding ?

    To match the radiation shielding provided by earths ~100km (some say 800 km) atmosphere from cosmic radiation and X-ray absorption, you would need approximately 5 meters (~16 feet) of regolith above your head. That will weigh a lot. It does not even need to be printed, but the printed structure would need to be strong enough to support the weight.

    But you only need that much shielding if you were actually planning to stay on the moon for very very long durations. Of course you could bring much thinner and lighter graded-Z shielding from earth initially (a laminate from a high-Z element through successively lower-Z elements).

    1. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: radiation shielding ?

      Hence the hope to use existing tubes to provide ready-made bulk space and bulk material thickness above said space to act as shielding. Using the printed materials to do a massive loft conversion job.

  7. Lil Endian Silver badge

    Earth's Gravitation?

    As I understood it, one huge impediment to viable, large, long-term structures on the Moon's surface is Earth's gravitational squishing of the Moon, eg. foundations/roads being broken up.

    Is this incorrect, or are there mitigations?

    Regardless, I could accept the project (Olympus) as prototyping and preparing for occupation of Mars. After all, turning up there to find the idea's SNAFU would be a TITSUP scenario!

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Earth's Gravitation?

      "As I understood it, one huge impediment to viable, large, long-term structures on the Moon's surface is Earth's gravitational squishing of the Moon, eg. foundations/roads being broken up."

      A bigger issue could be the temperature swings from day to night and back. Cobbles? A vehicle's wheels or tracks would need to handle travel on a cobble road, but we've been doing that for a few years now.

      I'm trying to think who to ask about moon squish.

      1. Lil Endian Silver badge

        Re: Earth's Gravitation?

        I think temperature, and other factors (eg. radiation), are surmountable, at least in theory. I can't see us mastering manipulation of gravity quite so readily, which is why raised the point.

        Cobbles: nice!

        "I'm trying to think who to ask about moon squish."

        I appreciate it if you can, as I'd like to understand what I've misunderstood here.

        BTW: I don't think I used "squish" as the correct engineering term, IANAE! :)

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