To reach the Moon or Mars, think big

Inflatable Moon domes could be covered with protective layer of printed-on lunar regolith (ESA)

23 July 2018

If one useful definition of a space agency is an organisation expected to translate vision into action, then full marks to the European Space Agency for looking outside its own walls to maximise its resources.

Charged by its member states in 2014 to “secure Europe’s central role in global space exploration, deliver new results in both basic and applied science and offer a compelling vision of global endeavour, enriching society and inspiring the next generations”, ESA determined to consolidate space exploration activities in a single European Exploration Envelope Programme (E3P) – and to create a new European ecosystem of entrepreneurs and start-up companies to help it get there.

So, late last year ESA initiated the appropriately named “Grand Challenge”. The idea is to “attract wide communities of thinkers and problem solvers” in a quest for “unconventional and disruptive approaches” which, while inspiring goals far from market research, “may also trigger development and exploitation of unforeseen spin-off businesses”.

The first of these Grand Challenges was formally launched last week at the Farnborough air show: a call for ideas to “assist sustainable operations for long-term settlements on the Moon or Mars”. If this theme is not surprising, it is arguably inspired. With the International Space Station era drawing to a close during the coming decade – 2024 by current planning – it is well-known that both national agencies, like ESA, and private actors are looking to take human reach and even long-term settlement beyond low-Earth orbit. But success will involve more than money; trips to the Moon, let alone Mars, depend on advances in both fundamental science and exotic engineering.

ESA director general Jan Wörner has long spoken of a “Moon village”, which is not a set of structures but, rather, a concept of missions and objectives that will allow spacefaring nations or other actors to participate as they see fit in a flexible programme of exploration and science on the lunar surface. Any long-standing presence – beyond Apollo-style short sortie missions – will, though, require some infrastructure, and this is the focus of the first ESA Grand Challenge. As ESA puts it, sustainable long-term operations would appear to demand maximal use of in-situ resources, rather than relying on the costly and ultimately limiting option of bringing everything needed as cargo from Earth.

One idea for such so-called in-situ resources utilisation, or ISRU, is to use local material – lunar soil, or regolith, for example – to build shelters and other structures. And, 3D printing is a promising approach to that challenge. The sponsor of this first Grand Challenge, appropriately, is Metalysis, headquartered in Rotherham, near Sheffield, and a specialist in producing the metal powders needed for 3D printing.

The company scores highly on the vision scale. During the signing of the Grand Challenge sponsorship agreement with Wörner, Metalysis chief executive Dion Vaughan told the Farnborough air show audience that his was not a space company – but was very excited by the prospect of discovering new ideas through this competition.

Entries are open until 30 November, and the winner will get a €500,000 prize, put up by Metalysis, to help develop their idea, with help from ESA scientists.