In a previous post, we mentioned Amsterdam’s ambitious plan to use autonomous 3D printers to create new bridges over the city’s historic canals, a story that demonstrated just how impressive computer aided design has become. But recent comments by the European Space Agency that it wants to 3D-print an inhabitable space station on the far side of the moon shows that even more impressive feats of CAD engineering are theoretically possible.
3D Printers … in Space?
NASA and space travel have been back in the news recently, thanks to the New Horizon spacecraft’s arrival at the edge of the solar system and its flyby of the celestial body Pluto. Other space agencies aren’t letting the publicity go to waste, either, and the European Space Agency (ESA) used the opportunity to discuss its own ambitious future plans for space exploration. In particular, the agency’s Director General, Professor Johann-Dietrich Woerner, unveiled plans for the creation of a series of 3D-printed buildings to be assembled on the dark side of the moon, leading to the creation of an inhabited moon village.
Obviously, this ambitious project would be quite challenging. It would first require the creation of an enormous 3D printer capable of creating the necessary structures and which could work in lunar conditions, and then transporting that machine to the far side of the moon, depositing it successfully so that it could begin work—all before a single person could inhabit the new base. Aside from the challenge of completing such a project, and the international bragging rights of being the first to put a base on the moon, why would the ESA invest the resources such a massive endeavor would require?
According to Woerner, the moon base plan was a reaction to NASA’s stated goal of creating a base on Mars. As far as the Director General is concerned, building structures on Mars and populating them is both something that is outside the reach of his agency, as well as a project that shouldn’t be undertaken without first testing the idea on a closer, more manageable celestial body. Additionally, building a station on the far side of the moon would create opportunities to install telescopes and other observational equipment that would have a unique vantage point from which to view the cosmos, possibly revealing new information that could lead to new scientific breakthroughs.[i]
A Cosmic Challenge for 3D Printing
While a European space base on the moon is years or decades away, at the earliest, the fact that the project is being mentioned in public with such earnestness shows how seriously the ESA is taking the idea. Inhabited buildings on celestial bodies have long been a dream of scientists and science fiction writers alike, but only in the last decade or two have they become a serious possibility, thanks in part to advances in computer aided design and 3D modeling programs. It doesn’t take an expert to understand how complex an operation this project would be. That the ESA thinks it is feasible (not to mention that NASA has similar plans for building structures on Mars) shows the amount of faith that the engineers working at space programs across the world have in CAD and 3D printing.
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