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 moonbase itself, be based near or on the rim of Shackleton Crater in near-perpetual sunlight.