Advanced Manufacturing Engineer, Advenit Makaya, provides an informative overview of the scientific research into materials and processes that could allow structures to be built in space, from existing materials.
As an engineer at the European Space Research and Technology Centre of the European Space Agency, Makaya’s work centers on the development of various technologically advanced materials and processes specifically for space applications. Makaya holds a master’s degree in general engineering from École Centrale de Lyon as well as a master’s degree in materials processing from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.
Makaya explains that his work involves current applications of materials and processes for spacecraft manufacturing, but also focuses on groundbreaking concepts for long-term objectives. One area of particular interest and specialization for Makaya and his team is the development of processes to utilize the innate materials of a particular space destination. By using indigenous materials that are already available on a particular planet, costs can be reduced, and efficiency increased, as less material must be loaded and hauled from Earth. Makaya is currently investigating the process that would allow space travelers to 3D print bricks from existing moon dust, which would certainly save time as cargo hauling from Earth could take months, or years even, to reach a specific space destination.
Through multiple missions to the moon to collect data, then samples, Makaya’s team is provided with essential information, such as the make-up and composition of the soil, etc. to further their study and bring research into reality. And while one might expect that materials would be wildly different on the moon, though proportions and composition, etc. of materials varies, the materials on the moon and Earth are quite similar in many ways. Essentially, Makaya states, there have been no unique materials discovered on the moon, which bodes well for advancing their processes to accomplish the manufacturing tasks in space.
The space research engineer discusses material differences that do exist between Earth and the moon, such as roundness versus sharpness. He explains that the moon’s particles are sharper than the Earth’s and as such adjustments in approach and manufacturing processes must be made. As the moon has no atmosphere, it has no protection from the sun’s radiation.
Therefore, all existing materials on the moon are impacted in different ways than they would be on Earth, and thus even though the sand on Earth and the sand on the moon are quite similar in composition, their environment takes its toll.
The researchers have successfully produced multiple miniature blocks, which were used to build model structures such as domes and trusses, etc. for future habitats in space, which has demonstrated the feasibility of the process. Further challenges will be to ensure the process works in a low gravity, extremely dusty environment with tremendously varying temperatures, especially considering the highly charged materials that exist on the moon. Makaya discusses the primary objective—to create structures that house and protect the occupants and equipment, but he shares the importance of psychological issues as well, such as allowing light in for the overall morale of inhabitants. But he warns that this is an area that is highly complex, as light-allowing structural material poses a potentially greater radiation risk for occupants. As Makaya’s study and research continue, the goal will be to take the engineering and science into practical application on the moon, and multiple countries worldwide are taking an interest in doing just that.