European startup shows the way to reduce rubbish on the Moon

It uses 3D printing to repurpose material from spacecraft into useful things, even with lunar dust in the mix.
Ameya Paleja
Space waste
Space waste


Living on the Moon is going to be a major challenge. But Austria-based Incus wants to make sure that there is one less challenge to attend to as the human race takes its first steps toward building a settlement there. It wants to make sure that all waste is recycled into useful parts and that there is no rubbish left on the celestial rock.

Space missions are often accompanied by a lot of waste. Even the launch of a satellite involved the discarding of boosters and rockets until Elon Musk arrived at the scene and made them reusable. Since components used in these missions need to be strong enough to withstand the rigors of space travel, they are often made with elements like titanium, which are both rare and expensive.

Discarding them in outer space is definitely wasteful and Vienna-based Incus believes that 3D printing can be deployed to repurpose them. The approach that the company takes is called Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) and it recently worked with the European Space Agency to test it.

What is lithography-based metal manufacturing?

In this technique of 3D printing, metallic powder is mixed with a binding agent and the mixture can be hardened by exposing it to ultraviolet light. The leftover feedstock can be shaken off and the part of interest baked further prior to use.

For space projects, Incus plans to take this a step further and source its starting material from discarded or defunct objects such as rovers, landers, or other spacecraft. While this can help solve the problem of space trash, there is also an added challenge of dust on these surfaces.

Lunar dust, for instance, could impact the binding process itself and reduce the ambitious plan to ashes. So, Incus teamed up with the ESA to determine the impact of lunar dust on its approach.

Simulated lunar dust

The collaboration tested the impact of lunar dust on the LMM process using both new and recycled titanium. They simulated the lunar dust and mixed it in increasing proportions up to 10 percent with the metallic powder to create different parts.

The project found that the increased lunar dust concentrations impacted the viscosity or runniness of the feedstock but this could be corrected by using higher binder ratios. "This project has proven that LMM technology is able to use recycled powder for the feedstock material and provide the sustainable zero-waste workflow," said Gerald Mitteramskogler, Incus CEO, in an ESA press release.

On its website, Incus states that the approach can be used for a wide variety of materials, including precious metals like silver and gold. However, the company still needs to work on optimizing it for iron and steel and also analyzing the impact of higher concentrations of lunar dust, which the ESA plans to support further.

"Considering the challenge of bringing humans back to the Moon and building a base, the topic of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is gaining significant momentum," said Martina Meisnar, ESA’s technical officer associated with the project. "(This) demonstrates that manufacturing methods like LMM are very good candidates to support such an endeavor."

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