3D-printing firm ICON received funding from NASA last year to help develop additive manufacturing technologies for its upcoming lunar missions.
Now, the company's technology has helped students build the world's first 3D-printed lunar launch and landing pad as part of NASA's Artemis Generation student initiative.
The students' prototype pad is based at a Texas Military Department location called Camp Swift, just outside of Austin, TX. In the future, a scaled up version could be 3D printed for future NASA missions using materials found on the Moon, an ICON press release explains.
In October 2020, ICON helped the students build their subscale prototype launch pad using a cement-based material and the company's gantry print system. Last week, the teams reunited at Camp Swift to conduct static fire with a rocket motor on the 3D-printed pad.
“This is the first milestone on the journey to making off-world construction a reality, which will allow humanity to stay - not just visit the stars,” said Michael McDaniel, ICON’s Head of Design.
A lunar landing pad for 'sustainable lunar exploration'
The rocket pad — dubbed the Lunar Plume Alleviation Device, or Lunar PAD — was developed with the primary goal of being sustainably deployable for future lunar missions. However, its ingenious design also tackles the issue of lunar dust.
During the Apollo missions, large dust clouds churned up by powerful rocket engine exhaust made landings risky, as they greatly reduced visibility.
In order to tackle this problem, the Lunar PAD features a series of petal-like channels that send exhaust upward and outward at the same time as trapping dust and minimizing clouds lofted upwards by the force of the rocket engines.
The student team proposed their design in a paper on the Lunar PAD concept on Jan. 12 at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' 2021 SciTech Forum.
"The proposal addressed a technology pain point, as the project enables a safe and reusable landing pad required for sustainable lunar exploration," Dankanich said. "The team worked many hundreds of hours, engaged NASA subject matter experts, and went from concept formulation to a preliminary design. They then turned that design into reality with the subscale construction, all in a few short months."
The pad is comprised of two layers. A "roof" where the rocket launches or lands, and a series of channels below the upper layer to safely redirect the exhaust.
A wall surrounds the structure, capturing any lunar dust particles that are projected outwards during a launch or landing.
In order to test the prototype pad, temperature measurement instruments, and strain and exhaust flow behavior sensors were implemented during printing. With the help of NASA experts, the team conducted hot fire testing on the pad.
Preliminary analysis suggests the design successfully fulfills its purpose of trapping dust expelled by rocket engine exhaust. The Lunar PAD project is just one exciting example of students helping to build the many technologies required to further space exploration.
Editor's Note 11/03/21: An older version of this article referred to dust being propelled "into the air" alongside the prototype pad, which is based on Earth. As the pad will eventually be used on the moon, where there is no air, this was removed for clarity.