3D printing on the moon and beyond

To take one pound of equipment into outer space costs around $10,000, according to Autodesk’s director of strategic research. It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out why governments are already ploughing swathes of cash into researching the application of 3D printing in a zero gravity environment.

In 2010 researchers at Washington State University demonstrated that simulated lunar surface material provided by NASA, called lunar regolith simulant, could be shaped in much the same way as silica. The research team, including husband-and-wife team Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bos, had success printing out small tube structures and showed how it could be used as a ‘superglue’ to bind other parts. They suggested that titanium could be added to provide the strength that it is currently lacking.

In Bandyopadhyay’s interview with Space.com he said: “It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years… As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It’s not that far-fetched.”

In 2011, an American start-up called Made in Space, partnered up with 3DSystems and Autodesk to put 3D printers through their paces in low-gravity parabolic flights. They successfully printed several objects including a scaled-down wrench. Since then they have also been awarded a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop 3D printing capabilities that can be deployed on the International Space Station.

In 2012, scientists from Italy produced the first 3D printed satelite, the CubeSat, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, comes in kit form and was successfully tested in near-space conditions. NASA are also looking at the feasibility of self-building spacecraft through their SpiderFab project, which looks to 3D print “huge space antennas or space telescope components 10 or 20 times larger than today’s counterparts”. Rather than having the constraints of having to fold the components into existing rockets they would start with a base and a 3D printer and then create the parts in orbit, possibly using existing space junk as source material.

Artist's rendering of lunar base. Photo credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
Artist’s rendering of lunar base. Photo credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

The European Space Agency (ESA) are currently conducting a feasibility study with industry partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners to build a lunar habitat. Large scale printer, the D Shape, is being used in tests to spray a binding material onto a sand-like building material that then solidifies. The idea shown in the artist rendering above relies on a 3D printing robot pouring hardened lunar dirt onto an inflatable dome shell.

Deep Space Industries
Deep Space Industries

A newly formed company, Deep Space Industries, announced in January their plans to launch a small fleet of asteroid prospecting spacecraft, made from the low cost cubesat components. It is part of a phased plan that, should it be successful, will lead to asteroid mining and 3D printing using the Microgravity Foundry – a 3D printer that can create high strength, high density components in a zero gravity environment using laser sintering.

The concept of ‘terraforming’  (literally meaning earth-shaping) of other moons or planets has been around as long as sci-fi novels themselves. It seems that 3D printing is going to be the technology that turns science fiction into science fact.

Oh, and just in case you’d like to 3D print your own moon shelter, here’s a site where you buy yourself some lunar regolith simulant.

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