AI-assisted laser 3D printing to create moon-base infrastructure
In 2018, the Laser Zentrum Hannover launched the ‘Moonrise’ project, in which its researchers are exploring how lasers can be used to print, buildings, launch pads and roads out of lunar dust.
The idea is that a laser system could be sent to the moon and melt regolith – the blanket of unconsolidated, loose deposits covering the solid rock on the lunar surface – which, after cooling, becomes a solid body that could then be used as a building material to create a ‘Moon Village’.
This global village – a concept by the European Space Agency (ESA) – could then be used as an outpost in space for setting up and conducting observation missions on the dark side of the moon, or as a stopover point for exploring more distant destinations in space.
On-site fabrication such as this could save enormous transportation costs and be a crucial factor in advancing the exploration of the moon and space.
'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', explained Jörg Neumann, Moonrise project manager at LZH.
The goal of the project is to therefore demonstrate that laser melting works on the moon and that, in perspective, it could be used to 3D-print infrastructure for a lunar base. Researchers have now announced that they plan to do this with the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI).
A camera will take photos on the moon, and researchers on Earth will then analyse these photos using an AI-based image processing system. The system will help analyse the melted lunar dust and provide the scientists with crucial quality control information.
The big 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 in which they will photograph the 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 lunar rover using the Moonrise technology to melt moon dust. (Image: LZH)
'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 in the laboratory the laser and the AI can be aligned with the real lunar mission,' explained Benedict Grefen, from the Exploration and Propulsion working group of the field of Aeronautics and Astronautics (RFT) at TU Berlin. The 'surface analogue model' created in this way will then also support decision-making during the mission.
Getting ready for the final journey
In a 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 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 Moonrise-FM (flight model) project will now run for three years and is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Action with €4.75 million. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2024.