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How NASA plans to use lunar dust to build structures on the Moon

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Living off the land in space

NASA’s new focus has been made clear: the space agency is sending humans back to the Moon — this time, in a sustainable way. At least, that’s the claim made by NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine, who says he’s not interested in just leaving “flags and footprints” on the lunar surface. “This time when we go, we’re going to go to stay,” he said at a meeting with NASA advisers in August.

But if we’re going to set up some kind of long-lasting lunar base on the Moon, that means we’re going to need to utilize the resources that we find up there to keep astronauts alive. Fortunately, the Moon may have quite a lot to offer.

For one, scientists are fairly certain that water ice sits exposed on certain areas of the lunar surface. Scientists confirmed the presence of solid ice on the Moon in 2008, thanks to India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Then in 2009, NASA further confirmed that water was there after slamming its LCROSS spacecraft into a crater on the Moon’s south pole. Water is especially enticing since the liquid is so important to us here on Earth. Astronauts could potentially use this resource for drinking, bathing, and watering plants. There’s also the possibility of breaking water apart into its basic components — oxygen and hydrogen — to make rocket fuel for vehicles that are traveling to and from the lunar surface.

But there’s another even more abundant resource lurking on the Moon: dirt. Scientists have been thinking of ways that we could potentially use the lunar soil, known as regolith, as a kind of building material. We visited NASA’s Swamp Works in Kennedy Space Center, where engineers have figured out ways to turn simulated lunar regolith into a type of feedstock for 3D printing. So rather than launch all the supplies needed for a lunar base from Earth, NASA could send up excavation robots, mining facilities, and 3D printers, all of which could be used to construct the hardware that astronauts will need to live. That includes things like tools, furniture, and even full-scale habitats.

There’s still a long way to go before all of this becomes a reality, but NASA has long been thinking about how to become the pioneers of space. Check out the efforts of Swamp Works in the video above.