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Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

News: Foster + Partners is exploring the possibilities of 3D printing buildings on the moon using lunar soil.

The London architecture firm is working with the European Space Agency to investigate methods for constructing lunar homes and has designed a four-person residence that would shelter its inhabitants from dramatically changing temperatures, meteorites and gamma radiation.

Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

The base of the house would be unpacked from a modular tube and an inflatable dome would fold up over it. Layers of lunar soil, known as regolith, would then be built up around the frame using a robot-operated D-Shape printer, creating a lightweight foam-like formation that is derived from biological structures commonly found in nature.

"As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials," said Foster + Partners partner and specialist Xavier De Kestelier. "Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic. It has been a fascinating and unique design process, which has been driven by the possibilities inherent in the material."

Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

The architects have used simulated matter to build a 1.5 tonne mockup of the structure and have also tested smaller models inside a vacuum chamber. They hope to construct the first structure at the moon's south pole, where it will be subjected to perpetual sunlight.

Led by architect Norman Foster, Foster + Partners has also recently won a competition to renovate the New York Public Library flagship and are working on a 200-metre skyscraper for Lehman Brothers Holdings.

Recent completed projects by the firm include the McLaren Production Centre in the UK and the Spaceport America space terminal in New Mexico. See more architecture by Foster + Partners.

3D printing has been in the news a lot recently, with a boom in demand for 3D-printed sex toys, the race to be first to print an entire building, 3D-printed outfits on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week and sweet-dispensers with 3D-printed heads.

See more stories about 3D printing »

Here's some extra information from Foster + Partners:

Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the ESA to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Addressing the challenges of transporting materials to the moon, the study is investigating the use of lunar soil, known as regolith, as building matter.

The practice has designed a lunar base to house four people, which can offer protection from meteorites, gamma radiation and high temperature fluctuations. The base is first unfolded from a tubular module that can be transported by space rocket. An inflatable dome then extends from one end of this cylinder to provide a support structure for construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a robot-operated 3D printer to create a protective shell.

To ensure strength while keeping the amount of binding "ink" to a minimum, the shell is made up of a hollow closed cellular structure similar to foam. The geometry of the structure was designed by Foster + Partners in collaboration with consortium partners – it is groundbreaking in demonstrating the potential of 3D printing to create structures that are close to natural biological systems.

Simulated lunar soil has been used to create a 1.5 tonne mockup and 3D printing tests have been undertaken at a smaller scale in a vacuum chamber to echo lunar conditions. The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon.

The consortium includes Italian space engineering firm Alta SpA, working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. Monolite UK supplied the D-Shape™ printer and developed a European source for lunar regolith stimulant, which has been used for printing all samples and demonstrators.