Scientists with the European Space Agency (ESA) have created a terrestrial simulation of moon dust to practise making bricks with. And it appears lunar "soil" is significantly different from its terrestrial equivalent, as it can be crushed, burned and compressed to form building materials, or used as the raw material for 3D printing.
Aidan Cowley, ESA’s science adviser, is an expert on lunar materials. He commented: "You can create solid blocks out of it to build roads and launch pads, or habitats that protect your astronauts from the harsh lunar environment."
As with Nasa’s project to build shelters on Mars, the aim is to find a way to avoid expending the enormous energy that would be needed to lift bulky construction materials out of Earth’s gravity well.Â
As well as its versatility, the dust is convenient because it covers the entire surface of the Moon and 40% of its mass is made of oxygen. Another research project is under way to find an energy efficient way to "crack" the dust to convert oxides back into gas.
Moon dust was formed over billions of years as a result of impacts, rather than through weathering and erosion, and interactions with organic life. However, it is mainly composed of basalt, which makes up 90% of the Earth’s volcanic rock, and it seems that volcanic eruptions that occurred 45 million years ago in the area of what is now Cologne provide a good substitute for Moon dust. It is this "EAC-1" material that the ESA is experimenting with
There are, however, some potentially important differences. One is that lunar dust is electrically charged, an effect which is difficult to reproduce on Earth. This may mean that the ESA will have to gather samples from the Moon to understand better its physical properties.
Image: This 1.5 tonne building block was produced as a demonstration of 3D printing techniques using lunar soil (ESA)