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Moon dust melted with a laser in lunar gravity for the first time

Scientists have succeeded in melting moon dust with a laser under lunar conditions for the first time.

The material – known as regolith – was ‘printed’ into joint lanes, which the researchers say is the first step towards 3D-printing buildings, landing points, and roads on the lunar surface using moon dust.

The achievement was made at the end of the two-year project MOONRISE, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and comprising scientists from the Laser Zentrum Hannover (LZH) and the Institute of Space Systems (IRAS) at the Technical University of Braunschweig.

With it currently costing around €1 million to transport 1kg of material to the Moon, the laser melting of moon dust could offer new, more affordable opportunities for building lunar infrastructure.

In the future astronauts could simply print structures for lunar inhabitants from the already abundant regolith on the surface.

Success in the lab

Within MOONRISE, laboratory experiments were carried out using a LZH laser head on the IRAS rover MIRA3D, which consists of a mobile platform and a robot arm. 

‘We were able to precisely control the laser head on the arm of the rover and thus melt larger structures precisely. A complete success!’ remarked Professor Enrico Stoll from IRAS. ‘...we have a solid basis for 3D printing with the laser on the Moon.’

The MOONRISE laser in use on the MIRA3D rover: The laser is as big as a juice box and can withstand adverse lunar conditions. (Image: LZH)

The laser has already withstood the necessary temperature-vacuum and vibration tests to simulate lunar conditions.

‘In the last two years, we have developed a laser head that is only about the size of a large juice box and yet can withstand the adverse conditions in space,’ confirmed Niklas Gerdes of the LZH. ‘During the first tests in the laboratory, we determined the necessary irradiation duration and laser power. We then went into the vacuum chamber and successfully melted regolith there.’ 

Lanes of moon dust melted with a laser as the basis for future lunar building blocks. (Image: LZH)

The experiments were the first ever to be performed in Leibniz University Hannover’s (LUH) ‘Einstein-Elevator’ – a highly specialised drop tower capable of simulating microgravity. ‘We succeeded in melting regolith into spheres – both under complete weightlessness and under lunar gravity. That is unique in the world!’ remarked Professor Ludger Overmeyer of both LZH and LUH.

The Einstein Elevator at LUH within which moon dust was successfully melted with a laser under lunar gravity. (Image: LZH/LUH/IRAS)

Throughout the project, the regolith's composition had to be adapted by IRAS scientists to the expected conditions of a lunar landing site. This involved finding suitable materials on Earth based on data from past lunar missions to reproduce the lunar dust as accurately as possible.

The next milestone for the project partners is to develop the laser head into a flight model, with them already in talks with relevant agencies to push ahead with the developments.

'The MOONRISE project is the first step towards a village on the Moon.' Gerdes concluded.

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