Tiny 3D Printed Structures from Simulated Martian Soil Could Be a Preview of Bigger Things to Come

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[Image: NASA]

Mars is a big topic of conversation right now among aerospace agencies, tech companies, governments, and just about anyone with any interest in space – which is most people, as far as I know. The question of the moment is not if we’ll ever get there, but when – and who will get there first. Everyone also seems to agree that 3D printing is going to be heavily involved in any mission to Mars – from the rocket engines that take us there, to the tools and parts we use along the way, to the buildings in which we live and work once we get there.

That last part is particularly important. 3D printing offers the most feasible way to build habitation – and without habitation, we can’t really stay on Mars for very long. And we’re going to want to stay there if we can, so that we have time to study the mysterious red planet that is so close to Earth, yet so far away. Before we get there, we need to figure out how exactly we can build on Mars, and we’re actually getting quite close to a solution, it seems.

While multiple agencies, universities, companies and even individuals have been studying methods of building habitation on Mars, they all have one thing in common – they agree that the best way to go about it is to 3D print with materials that can be found on the planet. It’s hard to test the idea since we don’t actually have soil from Mars to play around with, but we have been able to come up with some pretty good simulations.

One of those simulations has been catchily dubbed JSC MARS 1-A, and it’s actually taken from volcanic soil in Hawaii. The soil has been processed so that it resembles, as closely as possible, what we know about the characteristics and composition of the soil on Mars. And it’s 3D printable! Fotec, the research arm of the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt, recently undertook a project for the European Space Agency (ESA) in which they 3D printed miniature buildings out of the simulated Martian soil, or regolith.

The structures are very miniature, but Fotec chose designs that space travelers are likely to need to fabricate one day, in this case a wall and a conical hut. Christoph Buchner of Fotec explained that the soil was mixed with phosporic acid to serve as a binding agent and then extruded in layers.

[Image: Fotec]

“The hardened results demonstrate the technique has potential for hardware and structural manufacturing on a variety of planetary bodies – it does not depend on the destination,” Buchner said. “So this is a promising step towards ‘in-situ resource utilisation’ – the concept of using as much local materials as possible during a planetary mission, to cut down on the launch mass and cost.”

The tiny printed structures were produced as part of a larger ESA project called “Limited resources manufacturing technologies,” supported by the agency’s Technology Research Programme. While the doll-sized house and wall are a long way from full-sized, habitable structures, this is still a big step – it shows that the material works as a printing agent, and we already know that it’s possible to 3D print full-sized buildings with in-situ materials found here on Earth.

“This is an encouraging result which complements a number of activities ESA is undertaking to provide the technologies for long-distance robotic and manned exploration,” said Tommaso Ghidini, Head of the ESA’s Materials and Process Section. “For such missions, in-situ manufacturing will be key, so we are developing a wide variety of capabilities.”

Discuss in the Martian Soil forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: ESA]

 

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