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Mars Simulation in Omani Desert to Test 3D Printing for Visit to Red Planet

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The ‘impact farm’; an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. [Image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

Mars is our second nearest neighbor in the vast reaches of outer space. As such, it has long been easily visible in the night sky and so the circumstances surrounding its initial discovery are unclear. It continues to be a source of fascination and never more so than now when the fantasy of traveling to Mars is not far-fetched as it once was. While Venus is our closer neighbor, at a distance of nearly 25 million miles, its namesake goddess of Love is quite absent. With sufficient air pressure to crush a car, cloud coverage filled with sulfuric acid, and temperature rising above 900 degrees Fahrenheit, it might not even matter if it were within walking distance. Mars, on the other hand, despite generally being farther away, is much more welcoming and therefore the subject of all reasonable hopes for extra-planetary human exploration.

Because the orbits of both Mars and the Earth are not perfectly spherical (sorry Aristotle), there is a time during which Mars is a mere 55 million miles away, and were we to attempt a manned mission to the planet, it could be expected to take between six and eight months to arrive. To put that in perspective, that is similar to the amount of time that the astronauts spend at the International Space Station, but it’s still a doozy of a trip, since that’s just the getting there. And that doesn’t even begin to express the difficulties of such a mission once astronauts actually arrive at the planet. It’s not something to be taken lightly and it will require years of careful research and preparation in order to confidently send humans on such a trip.

[Image via Gulf News]

The latest round of exploratory experiments are being conducted by a team of six astronauts from the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) who have been dropped off in the Dhofar desert in Oman to live in conditions closely simulating those believed to be what they would experience during time on Mars. Of course, this simulation is minus the six to eight months of travel that would be wearing on the astronauts by the time of their arrival, but it should still provide useful information as humans continue to improve their Mars travel plans.

The 120-square-mile site was chosen because of its Martian appearance and the fact that it will allow the astronauts to be completely isolated from any traces of outside human civilization. While there, in addition to the everyday acts of survival, the team will be carrying out 19 experiments that are likely similar to those that researchers would wish to have carried out on Mars. Even a test run for this test run was necessary and has already been completed back in Innsbruck, which, I might add, is much more refined and beautiful than the surface of an alien planet. Awaiting the team, already in the desert are two shipping containers, the team’s space suits, and nearly five tons of equipment. The simulation aims to be as true to life as possible and details such as the ten-minute delay time that will be present when sending messages from Mars to Earth have already been built into the simulation. In an interview with Gulf News, Analog Astronaut and Deputy Field Commander at OeWF Joao Lousada described what they will be examining in the field:

The surface of Mars. [Image courtesy of NASA/Tim Parker]

“We will perform 19 different experiments that will help us prepare for a future mission to the red planet, coming a step closer to leaving the first footprints on Mars. The experiments range from growing microgreens in the greenhouse to DNA sequencing supported by rovers that will be undertaken over the four-week mission. We would need to live in isolation since we are talking about several months of travel each way, with little contact with Earth and in a small, closed space with the crew members.”

Among the experiments to be undertaken is one exploring the way in which 3D printing can support such a necessarily self-contained mission to an environment in which nearly everything needed will have to be fabricated with little infrastructure for doing so. The advanced manufacturing technology has been part of space exploration and its ability to fabricate, on demand, a wide variety of objects with great facility lends it naturally to missions where the amount of equipment that can reasonably be carried is so limited and the needs of the crew impossible to predict with absolute certainty. As Lousada explained:

“Among the 19 experiments, 3D printing will be crucial for future human missions to Mars. As part of our junior researches program ‘A3DPT’, it will allow us to print tools and parts during the mission.”

In a situation where multi-tasking resources are so vital and external help impossible to receive, the fact that 3D printers can be relatively easily built and maintained and directed to address needs as they arise makes it an ideal tool for such exploration. Experiments with the technology on the International Space Station continue to provide true-to-life information about the ways in which the technology can function in space, and information gathered during this simulation will only continue to add to our understanding of how 3D printing can advance something as extraordinary as a trip to another planet.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

 

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