Researchers from German institutes are planning to send a robotic mobile selective laser melting (SLM) printer to the Moon, to demonstrate in-situ additive manufacturing using lunar regolith as a feedstock.
The project is carried out by engineers from the Hannover Laser Center (LZH) and the Berlin Technical University (TU Berlin), and the technology has already been demonstrated successfully on Earth, using simulated lunar conditions.
You can see a render of the robot in the image below.
The three-year long “Moonrise” project has received funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Action to the tune of 4.75 million euros ($4.82 million).
It is intended to pave the way for technologies for lunar construction by using in-situ resource utilization, in this case, the resource being the silicate regolith of the Moon’s surface.
Why utilize local materials? Because sending stuff to the Moon is really expensive.
“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,” said Jörg Neumann, MOONRISE project manager at LZH.
“Our regolith construction kit will be adapted to the landing site on the Moon, so that in the laboratory the laser and the AI can be aligned with the real lunar mission.”
As mentioned previously, the technique has been demonstrated on Earth by using a lunar regolith simulant, and by recreating the (lack of) atmosphere on the Moon as well as the reduced gravity.
This reduced gravity experiment was conducted at the Einstein-Elevator of the HiTEC (Hannover Institute of Technology) at Leibniz Universitat Hannover. The Einstein-Elevator is a drop tower, capable of exposing experiments to a so-called microgravity environment, during freefall.
You can see an example of the fused regolith simulant from one of the various experiments in the image below.
Once on the Moon the rover will utilize AI to accomplish its mission.
The laser will be supported by artificial intelligence (AI). A camera will take photos on the Moon, and send them back to Earth, where researchers will then analyze these photos 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 AI must be trained in advance for use on the Moon so a simulated lunar environment has been set up at a laboratory at TU Berlin.
These experiments involve collecting photographs of the simulated regolith under lighting conditions that mimic those on the Moon. This will allow a corresponding pool of images to be created with which the AI can be trained.
“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,” said Benedict Grefen from the institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (RFT) at TU Berlin.
“This is then adapted in the project to the final landing site on the Moon, so that in the laboratory the laser and the AI can be aligned with the real lunar mission.”
The task now is to optimize the laser for spaceflight and to qualify the laser for launch. This will culminate in a flight model of the laser, and robotic carrier.
In a precursor 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 Moonrise mission is scheduled to launch in 2024.