Lunar mission deep in Zermatt's ice

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On 17 June, students from EPFL and 12 other European universities headed to Zermatt as part of the IGLUNA project. Their mission? To build and demonstrate a prototype lunar habitat in the ice that could one day support human life on the Moon.

Mankind first set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969. Five decades on, thoughts have turned to establishing a permanent settlement there. Over 150 students have descended on the mountain village of Zermatt as part of IGLUNA, a project coordinated by EPFL’s Swiss Space Center under the European Space Agency’s [email protected] initiative. The multidisciplinary teams will all be working toward the same goal: building a "habitat in the ice" that might one day be deployed on the Moon.

Supporting human life in an extreme environment is no easy task. The students spent the 2018/2019 academic year working on answers to some of the many challenging questions - both human and technological - that such an endeavor raises. How should the habitat be structured? Where will oxygen, food and power come from? How will settlers communicate and carry out research? What about their health and welfare?

Destination: Zermatt

The students headed to Zermatt in the Swiss Alps on 17 June for their field work. "The students are very much working as one team, sharing their modules and concepts," says Tatiana Benavides, who leads the project at the Swiss Space Center. "Put it all together and you can see how people might one day live on the Moon."

The students’ work is on display in two separate locations: conceptual and design pieces at the Vernissage Art Gallery (Backstage Hotel), and scientific and technical pieces at the Glacier Palace - Klein Matterhorn. Both exhibitions are open to the public until 30 June. "As well as presenting their work, the students are also testing out the habitat and robots, checking whether the plants grow and conducting scientific experiments," adds Benavides. "They may not be sleeping under the ice, but they’re operating in real-world conditions all the same."

EPFL shoots for the moon

At EPFL, students from several schools have been busy working on the project since September. The team, led by architect and lecturer Pierre Zurbrügg, built an igloo-like habitat 15 meters below the surface of the Klein Matterhorn glacier, which stands 3,883 meters above sea level. The structure, made from load-bearing and insulating materials, was designed and built by students from the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) as part of the "Living on Mars" teaching unit. "We had to factor in the practical constraints of the IGLUNA field site," explains Zurbrügg. "For instance, we needed to be able to transport the materials, assemble the habitat quickly, and work in temperatures of -4°C. We opted for a brick structure that’s relatively easy to assemble. It took just three days to build."

What would life be like inside the habitat? "Our team thought long and hard about life support," adds Zurbrügg. "Simply surviving isn’t enough. We needed somewhere people could actually live." The students’ idea was to harness the metabolic processes of the people and plants inside the habitat to create a life cycle and keep waste to a minimum. They also produced a complete 3D model of their habitat, with computer-generated images and an interactive animation showing what different parts of the environment would look like.

A team from GrowbotHub - a joint initiative between EPFL, UNIL and urban farming non-profit Légumes Perchés - designed a fully automated food production system for growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables in extreme conditions. "Our job is to assemble the structure and install the robot inside the habitat," explains Victoria Letertre, a robotics student at EPFL who was involved in programming the robot. "The SWAG team from Zürich is responsible for the aeroponics systems, and for growing and tending to crops in the lunar environment."

The EPFL team considered various other aspects of life on the Moon. For instance, they used 3D laser shock peening - a technique developed at the Laboratory of Thermomechanical Metallurgy (LMTM) - to design a saw capable of cutting through the ice. In another collaboration, this time between the Swiss Space Center and EPFL’s Computer Vision Laboratory (CVLAB), cameras were installed to monitor human behavior inside the igloo. Motion-capture algorithms were used to analyze the footage and identify where habitat design and safety improvements could be made.

"Our fascination with space comes from our natural curiosity and our desire to push the boundaries of human knowledge," says Benavides. "Living on the Moon is an immense challenge. Yet the technologies that the students have developed could have applications here on Earth, too - in extreme environments or in the aftermath of natural disasters, for example."

As IGLUNA 2019 draws to a close, the Swiss Space Center is preparing to run the project again next year. "It’s been an incredible learning experience on both the human and technology fronts," adds Benavides. "Some of the teams are planning to continue honing their prototypes next year. We’re also looking forward to receiving new proposals." The IGLUNA 2020 call for proposals closes on 21 July 2019.

"For me, IGLUNA is a dream come true. I never imagined I’d be working on a robot that could one day be sent to the Moon," says Letertre. "And if an opportunity arose for me to go into space, I’d be there in a heartbeat!