Working as part of the ‘Meeka Project,’ the organizations plan to expedite the development and testing of a new gantry-mounted lunar regolith 3D printer. Playfully named ‘Platypus Galacticas,’ the system is designed to allow for the rapid construction of Moon-based infrastructure up to 9m x 12m in size, and ultimately aid Australia’s ambitions to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface.
“We are absolutely delighted and extremely honoured to be partnering with UNSW to make building on the Moon possible,” said Luyten CEO Ahmed Mahil. “UNSW is renowned for its academic leadership and world class research and we couldn’t be more pleased to be working together. Our partnership will solidify Australia’s leading role in the world’s fast developing space economy.”
“Our combined expertise and passion for innovative and exceptional building outcomes, will help the human race to expedite colonization of the Moon and other planets.”
Luyten’s Platypus portfolio
Founded just last year, Luyten is a start-up with the stated aim of “bridging the technological gap” between the construction and manufacturing sectors. In an attempt to achieve this, the firm has developed a line of modular ‘Platypus’ concrete 3D printers, which it not only sells for $31-35,850 (USD), but markets as a service for building huge one-off structures.
At present, Luyten’s portfolio includes both the original entry-level Platypus and its more advanced Expeditionary system. Although the machines feature a similar gantry-layout, the former is designed to make 3D printing complex prototypes viable for architectural newcomers, while the latter is built to provide greater mobility to users, enabling them to scale construction on-site where desired.
The firm has also begun developing another portability-focused edition of the Platypus called the ‘X12,’ which can be transformed into a 12m x 16m 3D printer within twenty minutes. Little is known about the upcoming system, but its scalability is said to be enabled by a robotic transformer, and Luyten has stated that it’s set to be a “robust, mobile and lightweight” unit.
Prior to its Meeka announcement, the company’s technologies had firmly been earmarked for home building applications here on terra firma, with the Southern Hemisphere’s ‘first compliant 3D printed structure’ set to be built in December 2021. However, having identified the cost, pace and customization potential of the Platypus here on Earth, Luyten has now set its sights on extraterrestrial sites as well.
“When we developed our groundbreaking concrete 3D printers, we thought we would be solving building and construction issues across the world,” explained Mahil. “But with discussions currently taking place with people across the space industry, we are now looking at solving building and construction issues on the Moon. As a result, we have commissioned Project Meeka.”
Making moves on the Moon
As part of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the organizations, the UNSW has now committed to help develop a new addition to the Luyten lineup: the Platypus Galacticas. Being built under the codename Project ‘Meeka’ (meaning Moon in Australian aborigine), the machine is set to be lightweight-but-larger than the other Platypuses at 3m x 4m, as well as scalable and lunar regolith-compatible.
Once finished, the 3D printer is expected to reduce the amount of machinery and materials that need to be fired to the Moon, in the event that Australian astronauts seek to build a permanent base there. By employing such a CAD design-based approach to erect settlements, UNSW Associate Professor Matthias Haeusler says that it could even be possible to make them uniquely lunar-customized.
“With computational design, one has a method to design protective shells for habitats on the moon – with a foremost consideration on requirements for human habitat in mind,” said Haeusler. “[For example], It allows scientific knowledge on how to protect humans from solar and cosmic radiation to feed into a script that generates a shelter with the required 80-plus centimetres of solid material.”
Already, the project is set to be at a stage where the organizations are tuning and testing different lunar materials and designs, but the technology still remains a long way from end-use. If deployed on the Moon, for instance, the Platypus Galacticas would have to be preceded by regolith-mining rovers, which in turn, would need to ferry materials to base where they could be sintered into something printable.
According to Mahil, however, the benefits of developing such scalable technologies won’t just be felt on the Moon but back here on Earth, and the mission is set to yield learnings that inform the construction of housing in extreme climates as well.
“A lot of the daily conveniences that Australians have come to expect, are actually underpinned by space-based technologies,” concluded Mahil. “It is easy to forget that things such as internet access, weather forecasting, GPS, online banking and emergency responses to natural disasters, all heavily rely on the innovations floating in space above the earth’s surface.”
Is regolith-based AM taking-off?
While lunar regolith-based 3D printing remains at an early stage of development, several related research projects have now been backed by national space agencies, with each seeking to investigate its Moon base-building potential.
Space systems specialist Redwire, for instance, has been contracted by NASA to assess the feasibility of 3D printing regolith into on-demand lunar structures. Scheduled to take place on the International Space Station, Redwire’s Regolith Print (RRP) study is designed to serve as a ‘tech demo’ for using Moon dust-simulating feedstock to create orbital builds.
Likewise, Texan construction firm ICON has also been commissioned by NASA to assess the potential of 3D printing for producing off-world structures, albeit for Mars rather than the Moon. Using its Vulcan system, the company has already erected a 1,700 sq. ft ‘Mars Dune Alpha’ habitat, which NASA intends to use as a means of assessing the long-term impact of prolonged exposure to Martian conditions.
Over in Russia, the country’s Roscosmos agency has embarked on a similar mission to 3D print regolith-based shelters, as has China’s National Space Administration, which revealed its own plans to 3D print a Moon base back in January 2019.
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Featured image shows a rendering of what a future Luyten 3D printed lunar structure may look like. Image via Luyten.