In October 2024, NASA’s Artemis program will return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo era. In the years and decades that followed, several space agencies and commercial partners plan to build the infrastructure that would enable a long-term human presence on the moon. An important part of this effort is building habitats that can ensure the health, safety, and comfort of astronauts in the extreme lunar environment.
This challenge has inspired architects and designers from around the world to come up with innovative and novel ideas for life on the moon. One of them is the Lunar Lantern, a basic concept developed by ICON (an advanced construction company based in Austin, Texas) as part of a NASA-sponsored project to build a sustainable outpost on the moon. This proposal is currently being presented as part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition at the La Biennale di Venezia Museum in Venice, Italy.
The Lunar Lantern emerged from Project Olympus, a research and development program made possible thanks to a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract and funding from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). In line with ICON’s commitment to developing advanced construction technologies, Olympus’ purpose was to develop a space-based construction system that will support NASA and other future exploration efforts on the moon.
To make this vision a reality, ICON worked with two architectural firms: the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch +). While BIG is known for its iconic architecture and work on several lunar and Mars concepts in recent years, SEArch + is known for its “human-centered” designs for space exploration and its longstanding relationship with NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC.)) And the Langley Research Center (LRC).
In fact, SEArch + ‘s previous collaboration with NASA includes their work as part of the Human Habitability Division of NASA JSC and the Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technologies (MMPACT) team. They also participated in several phases of the NASA 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge (2015-2019), including the Mars Ice House and Mars X-House V2 (the winners of Phase 1 and Phase 3, respectively).
The result of their collaboration is the Lunar Lantern, a comprehensive lunar outpost that can be built on the moon using automated 3D robotic printers. In keeping with the philosophy of these companies and NASA’s Artemis program, the construction of this outpost leverages a range of emerging technologies as well as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) to minimize dependence on Earth.
For their presentation at the architecture exhibition, SEArch + created an updated video of their basic concept (see below), which illustrates how the Lunar Lantern concept enables a sustainable human presence on the moon. To address the various dangers of the lunar environment, the main habitat uses three structural components: a base insulator, pull cord, and a Whipple shield.
Base isolators are essentially seismic dampers that are placed on the foundation to absorb the shocks and loads caused by regular “moonquakes” – which are either “shallow” or “deep”. Shallow quakes occur at depths of 50-220 km (31-137 miles) and are attributed to changes in surface temperature and meteorite impacts. Deep quakes are rarer and stronger, and come from depths of ~ 700 km (435 miles) and are caused by tidal interactions with the Earth.
Then there are the pull cords attached to the outside that put compressive stresses on the 3D printed walls of the living space. The outermost component, the Whipple Shield, is a double shell consisting of an inner grille and outer shield panels. This provides protection from micrometeorite ballistic impacts and ejection (caused by nearby impacts) while protecting the internal structure from the extreme heat caused by direct sunlight.
In addition to protecting against extreme temperatures, radiation and seismic activity, one of the main concerns is the danger posed by all of the jagged and statically charged lunar regolith (also known as “moon dust”). As they illustrate, the Lunar Lander base is equipped to contain (and benefit from) this problem:
“The moon lantern outpost consists of habitats, sheds, landing pads, blast walls, and roads. Landing sites, believed to be one of the earliest lunar structures, must contain and control the supersonic and subsonic dust emissions that occur during takeoff and landing. The design of SEArch + offers several strategies for dust reduction and dust collection in terms of printability, form and function. “
Artist’s impression of the interior of the moon lantern habitat. Photo credit: ICON / BIG
As the animation shows, the configuration of the landing sites allows the dust to be collected so that it does not spread over the surface and disrupt operations. The collected dust can then be used as raw material for the construction robots, which rely on regolith to create 3D printed structures. In this way, the design not only prevents spillage from becoming a serious hazard, but also ensures a continuous supply of material that can be used for repairs to the structure.
The name was inspired by another important design feature that is human comfort. In short, the lantern lets in light from the lunar surface and then converts it into indoor lighting that (depending on the section of the habitat) is adjusted and turned off completely to simulate the night. Or as they explain in the video:
“To recreate the earth’s daily circadian rhythms and seasonal cycles, the Lunar Lantern uses a fiber optic system that captures the almost eternal light at the south pole of the moon and modulates it in terms of both brightness and color temperature. The interior of the habitat is organized vertically with three designated levels – for work and exercise, eating and social, sleeping and private rooms. “
There are also a few “Easter Eggs” in the video that fans of commercial space travel and space exploration will not miss out on! In both of the videos posted above (especially the one produced by SEArch +), some well-known vehicles can be seen on the landing pads. These include the SpaceX Starship, which Musk has promised to be ready to ship cargo and crews to the moon in a few years, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon landers – possibly the Human Landing System (HLS) variant that specifically was developed for NASA’s Artemis program.
Artistic impressions from inside the moon lantern. Photo credit: ICON / SEArch +
There is no shortage of ideas as to how people could one day live on the moon and Mars. Although the design elements differ from concept to concept, they all share the same commitment to the use of 3D printing, sustainability and the ability to provide water, electricity and food with local resources. Each also emphasizes how planning sustainable living in a hostile environment can shape our lives on earth.
The Lunar Lantern isn’t the only space architecture exhibition at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition (which runs through November 21). The European Space Agency (ESA) is also presenting – in collaboration with the international architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) – its proposal for a fully functional, semi-inflatable lunar habitat, known as the “Lunar Village”.
These two proposals beautifully illustrate how life beyond earth proposals are becoming part of mainstream architecture. By the end of this decade, this trend is likely to continue and eventually become an entirely new form of architectural, industrial and interior design. If and when people settle on the moon and mars, we can expect the real estate industry to follow suit!
Further reading: ICON, Search +, Biennale Architettura 2021