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Masten & PISCES Receive NASA Grant to Develop Low-energy 3D Construction Method for Moon, Mars

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 4, 2021
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HILO, HI (PISCES PR) — Masten Space Systems together with Pacific International Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) has been awarded a NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase 1 grant of up to $125,000 to develop a low-energy, additive construction method for the moon and Mars.

When humans go back to the moon, they will need materials to build shelter, infrastructure and crucial components for survival and operations. Not only that, but they will need an energy-efficient technique that takes raw materials and turns them into usable products—all in the vacuum of space.

PISCES has been researching such a technique using volcanic basalt and a novel binding agent. The STTR project proposes advancing and validating a novel binder-regolith composite for construction applications, and developing an effective extruder that can withstand the harsh lunar and Martian environments.

The composite materials will undergo structural testing at PISCES and the University of Hawaii at Manoa and be subjected to static rocket fire testing at Masten to assess their integrity as a launch and landing pad material.

Masten and PISCES will negotiate a 13-month contract with NASA before the award is granted and work begins. If selected for a Phase 2 award, the project would build and test the prototyped extruder (created in Phase 1) using the additive manufacturing method proposed.

Amount: up to $125,000
Duration: 13 months

Low-Energy Additive Construction for the Moon and Mars
Subtopic Title: Surface Construction

Masten Space Systems, Inc.
Mojave, CA

Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES)
Hilo, HI

Principal Investigator: Matthew Kuhns

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Dust mitigation on the lunar surface is an early priority for permanent or long-term lunar and Martian outposts. The physical characteristics of regolith on the lunar surface, along with its lack of an atmosphere and low gravity make the fine particles a hazard for equipment and operations on the moon. Mars presents similar hazards with its low-pressure atmosphere and reduced gravity. Regolith ejected from landers upon landing or taking off represent the highest risk due to the high exhaust velocities.

To mitigate high-velocity regolith from being ejected into adjacent areas, landing and launch pads require surface stabilization. Due to the large mass required and high payload costs, methods that incorporate ISRU have the potential to present a lower-cost and more efficient option for planetary vonstruction.

Past work by PISCES, in conjunction with NASA SwampWorks and Honeybee Robotics, has focused on sintering basalt without binders. This method has proven successful, but the high energy and the need for consumable high-temperature molds would incur substantial energy and payload costs.

Recent work done by PISCES evaluated the use of a binder in an aqueous solution that eliminates the problem of high energy input required for the process. The use of this binder has allowed for a reduction of the sintering temperature of the basalt, but most importantly, it cures into a structurally viable material under a vacuum and in CO2. This can be a game changer that allows for the regolith binder mix to be used in additive construction operations without the need for additional heat or consumable molds.

This proposal leverages Masten Space Systems’ work on the effects of PSI on surface erosion with their hot plume sample interaction testing and PISCES’ work on basalt-binder composites.

This proposal will advance and validate this novel binder-regolith composite for surface construction and develop an effective composite extruder for the relevant environments.

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed innovation addresses a number of NASA objectives.This proposal addresses several technologies relevant to NASA as outlined in the 2020 NASA Technology Taxonomy.  The process fits within TX07.2.3 Surface Construction and Assembly.  Additionally, this proposal directly addresses TX13.4.6 Ground Analogs for Space/Surface Systems, touches upon TX12.1.4 Materials for Extreme Environments, and SKG Theme 3. The primary use would be for the Artemis program supporting human landings.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Potential non-NASA markets include lunar and Martian infrastructure for commercial providers, non-terrestrial production of heat shields and radiation shielding. Potential terrestrial markets are tiles and countertops, and as a sintered product, refractory tiles for launch pads and furnaces.