Could Lava Tubes and 3D Printing Shape Our Lunar Future?

9 October, 2023 - 2:30 pm (53 days ago)
1 min read

Recent imagery from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera reveals an intriguing aspect of the Moon’s geological history. As an erstwhile hotspot of volcanic activity, the Moon’s surface sports distinct features, particularly “sinuous rilles” – elongated depressions believed to be remnants of ancient lava tubes. The one recently spotlighted stretches for an impressive 48 km near the Gruithuisen K crater in Oceanus Procellarum.

Image Source: lroc.asu.edu

These tubes aren’t limited to the Moon; we see them across the Solar System, including on Mars and Mercury. Formed during volcanic eruptions, they’re essentially insulated pathways allowing lava to travel far before hardening. Over time, many collapse, presenting a sequence of pits, the so-called “skylights.” Their stability and conducive temperatures make them ideal candidates for future lunar bases, offering protection from external space hazards.

However, some of these lunar tubes present perplexing topographies. While most collapse sites display expected depressions, a few areas show raised rims, suggesting either a different formative process or an alternate phenomenon at play.

Harnessing 3D Printing for Lunar Missions

The weight constraints of lunar missions push the boundaries of innovation, with in-situ resource utilization emerging as a key strategy. Tapping into this, researchers recently unveiled a rover wheel prototype made using a 3D printer. This additive manufacturing technique entails layering and melting metal powder to craft desired shapes.

Conceived at the US Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, this wheel mirrors the design specifications of NASA’s VIPER rover, set to launch in 2024. Though this specific prototype won’t be accompanying VIPER, the technology behind it is being evaluated for potential inclusion in future lunar or Martian missions.

The manufacturing process, involving a nickel-based alloy powder and laser melting, occurs within a sizable 3D printer. The challenge lies in transporting this behemoth to the Moon and ensuring an adequate supply of lunar regolith-derived metals. Nonetheless, this NASA-DOE collaboration underscores the exciting potential of interagency teamwork and the promise of advancing lunar base ambitions.

The Moon continues to unveil its mysteries, promising both scientific insights and challenges. With potential lunar habitats within lava tubes and the advent of 3D printing, our celestial neighbor inches closer to becoming a second home. The road ahead, while paved with challenges, also brims with possibilities, urging us to redefine the boundaries of exploration.

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