As humanity looks to explore and potentially colonize other planets, geotechnical engineers have already begun to be called upon by NASA to help design and build the structures and infrastructure needed to support life and activities in these extreme environments.
In the final moments of 2022, Nasa awarded a A$57.2M contract to US-based construction technology provider Icon to develop a system that could help build infrastructure on the Moon for its Artemis missions, which aims to establish long-stay crewed missions on the surface of the Moon by the end of the decade.
Working with U.S. companies and international partners, NASA plans to uncover new scientific discoveries and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. The agency will then use what they learn on the Moon to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.
As one can imagine, a significant amount of infrastructure will be needed to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, including landing pads, blast shields, habitats and roads on the lunar surface. Using their team of Structural and Geotechnical Engineers, Icon will use the new contract to develop a space-based construction system, which will use local resources on the Moon and Mars as building materials.
“In support of Nasa’s Artemis program, Icon plans to bring its advanced hardware and software into space via a lunar gravity simulation flight,” said Icon. The company intends to work with samples of lunar regolith – unconsolidated debris on the lunar surface – brought back from Apollo missions to develop lunar construction approaches.
“In order to explore other worlds, we need innovative new technologies adapted to those environments and our exploration needs,” said Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate director of technology maturation Niki Werkheiser. “Pushing this development forward with our commercial partners will create the capabilities we need for future missions.”
Icon co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard commented on the new contract: “To change the space exploration paradigm from ‘there and back again’ to ‘there to stay,’ we’re going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the Moon and other planetary bodies. We’re pleased that our research and engineering to-date has demonstrated that such systems are indeed possible, and we look forward to now making that possibility a reality.
“The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement.”
Icon has already worked with Nasa on other projects where it used its printing technology. It recently 3D printed a 158m2 simulated Martian habitat that will be used during the US space agency’s Crew Health and Performance Analog mission later this year.
Icon also competed in Nasa’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. It partnered with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and the team won a prize for 3D printing a structure sample that was tested for its ability to hold a seal, for strength, and for durability in temperature extremes.
To help create suitable lunar and Martian habitats, Icons team of Structural and Geotechnical engineers will need to consider the properties of the soil and other materials on other planets, as these will be different from those on Earth. For example, the soil on Mars is known to be very fine and dusty, which can make it challenging to work with. Geotechnical engineers will have to design habitat and road foundations that can stand up to these conditions.
Other challenges these engineers will have to consider include the effects of temperature changes, micrometeorites, and other environmental factors on the stability and durability of structures.
Several other architecture studios are also exploring building on the moon. Architecture studio SOM and the European Space Agency designed a settlement for living on the Moon that is made up of inflatable modules and aptly named Moon Village. Meanwhile, British architecture studio Foster + Partners unveiled a proposal to 3D print buildings on the lunar body. Yes, it’s safe to say the race to design the sturdiest and most durable infrastructure within the global Geotech community is well and truly on!
What do you think? Will there be lots of work for geotechs with future space missions? Let us know!