Bold ideas for life off Earth
24 January 2019
In a repurposed office on the European Astronaut Centre’s ground floor in Cologne, Germany, several material science students are investigating bold ideas for future missions to the Moon.
Known as the “creativity room”, the workshop is home to three 3D printers, a tube furnace, and a small thermal vacuum chamber designed and constructed onsite.
It is all part of an initiative promoting collaboration with universities and research institutions across Europe, led by ESA science advisor Aidan Cowley and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, called Spaceship EAC.
Alongside the creativity room’s more technical tools, sit two standard household microwaves. Though they look like good places for students to heat up their lunch, even these are instrumental in Moon base investigations.
As part of a previous project, students placed a sample of simulated lunar soil in one of the microwaves in an attempt to modify it slightly, but returned to find it melded into nuggets.
“As it happens, Moon dust is very susceptible to the 2.4 gigahertz of a conventional microwave oven due to its iron content. It certainly got us thinking about the potential of this existing technology in building a sustainable lunar habitat.
“Many of the world’s best inventions stem from accidental discovery,” Aidan laughs.
Now students are also experimenting with the tube furnace and vacuum chamber to try and find a way to extract usable oxygen from lunar soil. This could be helpful in sustaining astronauts or creating fuel during lunar missions, and may lead to innovation that helps us here on Earth.
Building the bigger picture
The Spaceship EAC initiative allows low risk exploration of early stage ideas, but it also feeds into ESA’s wider programme of preparation for a future beyond Earth.
During his time at ESA’s astronaut centre, Belgian national trainee Stefan Siarov worked closely with material scientists and engineers at ESA’s Netherlands-based ESTEC campus. His goal was to find a way of recycling 3D-printed material and investigate how this material changes through the process.
Current studies focus solely on recycling 3D-printed commodity thermoplastics. These are the kinds of plastics used in packaging, drink bottles and other kinds of household applications that do not require high mechanical or thermal properties.
Stefan’s study was the first to investigate the impact of recycling 3D-printed engineering thermoplastics. This class of materials exhibit mechanical and chemical resistance properties that are retained even at extremely high temperatures.
Stefan found two such plastics (PEEK and PEKK) could be recycled and reused for 3D-printing at least once with minimal loss of functionality. It is a finding that could aid the development of manufacturing and maintenance capabilities in space, on the Moon and beyond by saving energy, reducing costs and increasing independence from Earth.
ESA materials and processes engineer Ugo Lafont supervised Stefan’s project. Together with other ESTEC colleagues, he is now working to further strengthen the relationship with EAC’s young researchers.
“There is certainly a need to investigate these kinds of technologies, but because we are already working on major projects, we simply do not have the finances or the people power to dedicate to smaller studies that could fail,” Ugo explains.
“Spaceship EAC is almost like a start-up. Students and trainees have the freedom to explore potential concepts and new technologies at a relatively low risk and cost. At the same time, we can share our expertise and provide access to cutting-edge facilities. It is a great collaboration.”