Professors present project to build lunar structures

Four USC professors are working on a project that could potentially help build structures on the moon.

Berok Khoshnevis, professor of industrial and systems engineering and the project’s principal investigator, will present the proposal today at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Far out · The Contour Crafting Simulation Plan for Lunar Settlement Infrastructure Build-Up is a collaboration between engineering and architecture professors. - Rendering courtesy of Behnaz Farahi and Connor Wingfield

NASA chose to fund this project, along with 29 others, in August from a pool of nearly 800 proposals. Each proposal receives approximately $100,000 for one to develop feasible structures, according to a NASA press release.

Khoshnevis; Anders Carlson, an assistant professor of architecture and director of the Master of Building Science Program; Neil Leach, a visiting professor in the school of architecture; and Madhu Thangavelu, a professor of astronautics in the Viterbi School of Engineering and lecturer in the school of architecture, will lead the project.

The project takes Khoshnevis’ Contour Crafting device, a 3-D printer that uses cement to build structures layer by layer, and converts the structure for use on the moon.

Khoshnevis began work on his Contour Crafting device in 2000, and it was named one of the top 25 inventions by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.

The team is currently working on a prototype of the Contour Crafting Simulation Plan for Lunar Settlement Infrastructure Build-Up. Right now, the team is developing a nozzle system that would heat lunar soil into a consistent paste that could be used like cement in the terrestrial Contour Crafting device.

“NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is an expert in processing lunar material. They make the lunar simulant material we use for testing. It has the same composition of the soil on the moon,” Khoshnevis said. “We have gotten some of this material, so we are melting this material at USC and trying it out at contour crafting and building smaller structures.”

Khoshnevis said the next step is “actually building something useful.” The team will go to NASA’s testing facility in Arizona, Desert Research and Technology Studies, or D-RATS, after it develops the machinery.

“We’ll take it to Arizona and use the soil there and, using the sun power and the build structure, do what is supposed to happen on the moon and give the first try on earth at the D-RATS site,” Khoshnevis said.

Khoshnevis said scientists are very familiar with the conditions of different soils on the moon as a result of NASA’s previous research, and the sand in Arizona is similar to the kind found on the moon.

The Lunar Contour Crafting device would be used to build basic infrastructure, such as landing pads, aprons to guard against debris from landings, hangars and shields to create shade. The self-assembling device would use solar energy.

“The electrical energy that we create can drive different machinery as well as a heater that melts the lunar heater,” Khoshnevis said. “Then it extrudes the molten material, which is like lava, out of a nozzle that is contour-crafting. On a layer-by-layer basis it builds these different structures.”

The device will use sulfur-based material, but because the melting point of sulfur is close to the higher temperatures reached on the moon, shields made of ceramic materials, which have a lower melting point, will be used to create shade.

Once such an infrastructure is in place, Khoshnevis said, habitable structures could be a travel destination for space tourists. Communication devices could be put on the moon, a more stable environment than in orbit where they are hit with space debris, and a telescope on the moon would give researchers a clearer view of the universe because the moon has no atmosphere.

Building structures on the moon would also provide a way for testing the possibilities of going to other planets.

“Whatever you want to try on Mars or other planets would be easier to test on the moon first,” Khoshnevis said. “It only takes three days to get there.”

Though Khoshnevis said building permanent structures on the moon might not happen in his lifetime, it could happen during the lifetimes of current students.

“The human is a brand new species,” Khoshnevis said. “While some people think everything that could be invented [has] already been invented, I believe that we are just at the beginning and that we haven’t scratched the surface of what we can do. It’s a good feeling to be on the front lines of those discoveries.”