NASA is preparing to send astronauts back to the moon, the spaced agency is funding a series of research and development (R&D) projects focused on turning lunar regolith into landing pads, blast shields and other useful structures. NASA was funding more than 20 3D printing-related proposals as part of its 2022 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program
NASA recently selected four R&D projects for funding under its Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. The projects, which partner small businesses with academia, will each receive up to $150,000 apiece for studies lasting 13 months.
Astroport and the University of Texas at San Antonio are working to develop a BrickLayer system for building lunar launch and landing pads (LLPs).
Contour Crafting Corp. and the University of Southern California are teaming to develop a conveyance system known as CrafTram that would be capable of performing the task of moving lunar regolith that on Earth are performed by loaders or trucks.
Lunar Construction Technology
Described as a special version of Contour Crafting’s CrafTram technology, this new system is expected to autonomously move lunar regolith using a fraction of the energy required by alternatives such as conventional loaders or trucks, which would otherwise have to make return trips empty. Instead, CrafTram would eliminate the need for such back and forth transport of a vehicle. Once on-site, the platform could operate smoothly with minimum wear, regardless of sandy or rocky terrains, and transport material to and from different elevations, including sharp uphill or downhill trajectories.
“The BrickLayer uses feedstock of raw regolith to produce bricks in a single-step lunar regolith melting, brick forming and placement method without use of grouts or mortar for landing pad creation, or for any flat hardened surface area such as roads or foundations,” the proposal summary said.
“To enable the brickmaking process, our proposed innovation is a multi-step process of regolith works executed by multiple machines operating autonomously or in remote control mode with step sequencing/timing to enable machine-to-machine collaboration. The process includes construction system components using two separate mobility platform types, one for landing zone site preparation and another for LLP production,” the summary added.
Material for Moon Bases
For several years regolith has been regarded as the potential primary building material for printed structures on the Moon and Mars, mainly due to its abundance. There are already several proposals to excavate and harvest lunar regolith for construction, so creating the technology to transport this material seems to be the next fundamental step in the race to colonize the Moon.
Conventional solutions such as earth-moving equipment consume large amounts of energy and have to travel one way with empty loads. Moreover, their bulk makes transporting the machinery to the lunar surface very expensive. That is why the special CrafTram proposed by Contour Crafting holds many possibilities. Primarily, it is a super lightweight concept, which folds into a small spatial envelope for easy transportation to the lunar surface. Once there, it could self-transform to its deployed form for autonomous operation at planetary construction sites.
But embarking on a mission to develop technology for colonizing Earth’s moon and beyond is no easy task. Contour Crafting will design the CrafTram system for this new project and create a TRL (Technology Readiness Level) 4 functioning 1/3 scale prototype. The proposed effort at the research level also includes the analysis and design of a demonstration structure called a berm, which protects the environment around the landing pads from blast projectiles produced by spaceships taking off or landing.
According to the proposal, the analysis and design of the berm will be done by USC VSOE’s professor Lucio Soibelman’s Structures and Materials Research Lab (SMRL).Towards the end of Phase I, both Contour Crafting and SMRL will demonstrate a scaled-down version of the CrafTram concept in action, transporting material and constructing a ⅓ scale lunar berm structure out of a regolith simulant material.
The goals of this collaborative effort are directly aligned with NASA’s Artemis mission which aims to establish the first lunar base and a lunar economy in the following decades. However, outside of this application, the CrafTram technology could serve as a general-purpose material conveyance system that will be made available for other missions to the Moon, and in the future, to Mars.