3D-printing on the Moon: Scientists from the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) and Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) are planning a flight to the Moon to melt lunar dust with laser radiation. In the MOONRISE project, the research team wants to explore the question of how we can use lasers to build landing sites, roads or buildings out of lunar dust in the future. To do this, the researchers want to bring a laser system to the lunar surface and melt the lunar dust, a material that is available everywhere on the Moon. Artificial intelligence will support the laser process. The goal is to show that laser melting works on the Moon – and, in the longer term, can be used to produce 3D-printed infrastructure for a lunar base.
From both a scientific and an economic perspective, our terrestrial satellite is a coveted target. Billionaires are not the only ones who want to fly well-paying guests around the Moon; the European Space Agency (ESA) also has plans for a "Moon Village” . This is because the far side of the Moon, which is always turned away from the Earth, would be suitable for powerful space telescopes. In addition, the lower gravity and lack of an atmosphere make the Moon an ideal stopover for setting up missions to more distant destinations in space. But how can launch pads, landing sites and buildings be constructed on the lunar surface? "At a cost of up to a million dollars per kilogram, a complete transport of the material from Earth to the Moon would be extremely expensive," explains Jörg Neumann, MOONRISE project manager at LZH.
Pulverized lunar rock, or regolith, on the other hand, is abundant on the Moon and could be used as a raw material for 3D printing. The use and processing of on-site materials – also known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) in spaceflight – could be a crucial factor in advancing the exploration of the Moon and space.
The groundwork for the project has already been laid. In the predecessor project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the research team developed a compact, robust laser and successfully tested it in the laboratory on the robotic arm of a lunar rover. The scientists also succeeded in melting regolith under lunar gravity in the Einstein-Elevator of the HiTEC (Hannover Institute of Technology) at Leibniz Universität Hannover. The task now is to make the laser fit for lunar flight. The scientists from LZH and TU Berlin want to develop a flight model of the laser that is qualified for use in space.
The laser will be supported by artificial intelligence (AI). A camera will take photos on the Moon, which researchers on Earth will then analyze with the help of an intelligent image processing system. The system will help analyze the lunar dust melted by the laser and provide the scientists on Earth with AI-based process and quality control.
The considerable challenge here is that the AI must be trained in advance for use on the Moon. To this end, scientists will create a laboratory at TU Berlin where they will photograph the regolith under lighting conditions mimicking those on the Moon. This will allow a corresponding pool of images to be created with which the AI can be trained. "In addition, a regolith construction kit has been developed over the past few years, which allows the various possible landing sites to be precisely recreated in terms of properties. This is then adapted in the project to the final landing site on the Moon, so that the laser and the AI can be aligned in the laboratory with the real lunar mission," explains Benedict Grefen from the group "Exploration and Propulsion" at the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (RFT) at TU Berlin. The "surface analog model" created in this process will then also support decision-making during the mission.
The MOONRISE FM project will run for three years and is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Action with 4.75 million euros. The project executing agency is the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The mission is scheduled to launch in 2024.
Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH)
As an independent non-profit research institute for photonics and laser technology, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) stands for innovative research, development, and consulting. Funded by the Lower Saxony Ministry of Economics, Labor, Transport and Digitalization, the LZH is dedicated to applied research in the field of photonics and laser technology. Founded in 1986, the LZH currently employs nearly 200 people. LZH project website with extensive material.