3D printing is already some of the coolest technology around and it is hard to imagine how it could be combined with a material that could make its near magical ability to create form from nothing seem even more impressive. However, just as when Dr. Evil decided to go all-out-over-the-top by putting lasers on the tops of the heads of his sharks, the company Planetary Resources has one upped the 3D printing game by using meteorite dust as its favored material for printing.

dscf2812-1The CEO of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, has more than just a passing interest in things not of this world. The company’s work consists of something called ‘asteroid mining’ — in other words, extracting resources from what is, as far as is practical, an infinite supply of mineral laden rocks just floating around in outer space with nothing better being done with them. It is a vision of extractive mining taken to a galactic level and with, as of yet, no nay-saying NIMBY activists to upset with destruction of the countryside around a mine. Lewicki’s idea is that we will eventually run out of necessary minerals here on Earth and the time will come when we begin to fish about in space in hopes of encountering new sources for them. Rather than waiting until we are in crisis mode, Planetary Resources wants to get a jump on the process so the transition can be as smooth as possible.

DSCF2782Whether or not this is a silly idea worthy of ridicule is something I will let you decide for yourselves. However, whatever the case may be, they have produced a 3D printed part made from a meteorite that landed in Argentina a nearly unimaginable length of time ago. And that is unquestionably cool. Lewicki’s ideas are intriguing and, taking a page from the great Carl Sagan, he explained the thoughts behind the development of his company:

“Instead of manufacturing something in an Earth factory and putting it on a rocket and shipping it to space, what if we put a 3D printer into space and everything we printed with it we got from space? There are billions and billions of tons of this material in space. Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.”

PlanetaryResources_3DSystems_MeteoriteLow-680x491The space dust ink is created by drawing drops of titanium out of a plasma-induced cloud composed of iron nickel, a fairly extraordinary idea in and of itself. This unusual material can currently be used to create prints with a regular-old Earth-style printer, specifically the 3D Systems ProX DMP 320 direct metal printer. To fully realize Lewicki’s dream, a great deal more research is necessary in order to answer a number of questions about the unique stresses of mining and printing in a zero-gravity environment, but also warns that this isn’t as distant a prospect as many might believe:

“How do you get [the printed object] to stay in place while it’s being printed? How do you get the powder to stay in place? People think about asteroid mining and think it’s in the far, far future, but this is stuff that we’re doing right now. We launched a satellite in space last year, have two more on the way this year.”

dscf2784-1It’s possible that this idea is insane, but it’s also possible that one day children will learn about Lewicki as the father of space manufacturing.  In the meantime, at a CES booth in Las Vegas, visitors could get their hands on just a tiny piece of outer space and truly contemplate creation with a 3D printing material that is out of this world.  Discuss this story in the Planetary Resources 3D Printing forum on 3DPB.com

[Source/Images: Engagdget and Planetary Resources]
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