Shooting for the Moon. Fifty years after we got there, plans are afoot for Earth’s satellite may become a colony. We meet an Irish scientist trying to make it possible.

19 July 2019 By Paul Martin

It was a standard domestic microwave oven on the ground floor of the Agency that helped him discover a crucial clue to living on the Moon. “Many of the world’s best inventions stem from accidental discovery,” Cowley remarks.

His material science students had wanted to see whether microwaves would have an effect on a sample of simulated lunar soil. They came back, after the over tinged, to find the soil had melded into nuggets.

Cowley, who for the last five years has been living, along with his two cats, near the European Space Agency headquarters at Cologne, Germany.

He explains: “We didn’t have any actual lunar dust or soil. There has been a few hundred kilograms of the stuff brought back from a few Apollo missions, but that’s very carefully safeguarded by the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and only used very little by little.

“But it turned out we could make a substance very similar to lunar soil by taking material that had been spewed out by a volcano, and making some technical changes to it.

“We found out that this moon-dust-like substance is very susceptible to the 2.4 gigahertz of a conventional microwave oven because of its iron content.”

That’s when Cowley was inspired to think about the potential of this existing technology to help build a lunar habitat where humans could live and work for considerable periods, or even for several years.

Today the Agency’s “creativity room” workshop is home to three 3-D printers, a tube furnace, and a small thermal vacuum chamber designed and constructed onsite.

Cowley and his students are also experimenting with the tube furnace and vacuum chamber to try and find a way to extract usable oxygen from lunar soil. This could be helpful in sustaining astronauts’ breathing, or in creating fuel, during lunar missions, and may lead to innovation that helps us here on Earth.

The ‘Spaceship EAC’ initiative allows low risk exploration of early stage ideas, but it also feeds into ESA’s wider programme of preparation for a future beyond Earth.

Current studies focus solely on recycling 3D-printed commodity thermoplastics. These are the kinds of plastics used in packaging, drink bottles and other kinds of household applications that do not require high mechanical or thermal properties.

The study at the European Space Agency was the first to investigate the impact of recycling 3D-printed engineering thermoplastics. This class of materials exhibit mechanical and chemical resistance properties that are retained even at extremely high temperatures.

The space agency found two such plastics (PEEK and PEKK) could be recycled and reused for 3-D printing at least once with minimal loss of functionality.

By saving energy, reducing costs and increasing independence from Earth, this process could help develop and manufacture and maintain equipment in space, on the Moon and beyond.

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