To honor the brilliant new album by the Thin White Duke, we came across the article excerpted below, which at first glance seems to come directly from the songbook of Ziggy Stardust him- or herself. But closer inspection reveals that NASA may have designs on deploying giant manufacturing robots to construct a base on the moon. Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Once you’ve had your fill of Bowie, read on about NASA’s spiders.
[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]
The first lunar base on the Moon may not be built by human hands, but rather by a giant spider-like robot built by NASA that can bind the dusty soil into giant bubble structures where astronauts can live, conduct experiments, relax or perhaps even cultivate crops.
We’ve already covered the European Space Agency’s (ESA) work with architecture firm Foster + Partners on a proposal for a 3D-printed moonbase, and there are similarities between the two bases—both would be located in Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole, where sunlight (and thus solar energy) is nearly constant due to the Moon’s inclination on the crater’s rim, and both use lunar dust as their basic building material. However, while the ESA’s building would be constructed almost exactly the same way a house would be 3D-printed on Earth, this latest wheeze—SinterHab—uses NASA technology for something a fair bit more ambitious.
The product of joint research first started between space architects Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Ondrej Doule and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), SinterHab is so-named because it involves sintering lunar dust—that is, heating it up to just below its melting point, where the fine nanoparticle powders fuse and become one solid block a bit like a piece of ceramic. To do this, the JPL engineers propose using microwaves no more powerful than those found in a kitchen unit, with tiny particles easily reaching between 1200 and 1500 degrees Celsius.
Nanoparticles of iron within lunar soil are heated at certain microwave frequencies, enabling efficient heating and binding of the dust to itself. Not having to fly binding agent from Earth along with a 3D printer is a major advantage over the ESA/Foster + Partners plan. The solar panels to power the microwaves would, like the moon base itself, be based near or on the rim of Shackleton Crater in near-perpetual sunlight.
“Bubbles” of binded dust could be built by a huge six-legged robot (OK, so it’s not technically a spider) that can then be assembled into habitats large enough for astronauts to use as a base. This “Sinterator system” would use the JPL’s Athlete rover, a half-scale prototype of which has already been built and tested. It’s a human-controlled robotic space rover with wheels at the end of its 8.2m limbs and a detachable habitable capsule mounted at the top.
Athlete’s arms have several different functions, dependent on what it needs to do at any point. It has 48 3D cameras that stream video to its operator either inside the capsule, elsewhere on the Moon or back on Earth, it’s got a payload capacity of 300kg in Earth gravity, and it can scoop, dig, grab at and generally poke around in the soil fairly easily, giving it the combined abilities of a normal rover and a construction vehicle. It can even split into two smaller three-legged rovers at any time if needed. In the Sinterator system, a microwave 3D printer would be mounted on one of the Athlete’s legs and used to build the base.
Rousek explained the background of the idea to Wired.co.uk: “Since many of my buildings have advanced geometry that you can’t cut easily from sheet material, I started using 3D printing for rapid prototyping of my architecture models. The construction industry is still lagging several decades behind car and electronics production. The buildings now are terribly wasteful and imprecise—I have always dreamed about creating a factory where the buildings would be robotically mass-produced with parametric personalization, using composite materials and 3D printing. It would be also great to use local materials and precise manufacturing on-site.”
[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]
[div class=attrib]Image: Giant NASA spider robots could 3D print lunar base using microwaves, courtesy of Wired UK. Video: The Stars (Are Out Tonight), courtesy of David Bowie, ISO Records / Columbia Records.[end-div]