3D Printing Tools for Better Research on Mars

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[Image: Gulf News]

At the beginning of the year, a team of astronauts was dropped off in the Dhofar desert in Oman, a desolate environment that is about as close as you can get on Earth to anything resembling the surface of Mars. In this isolated location, the research team would carry out a series of experiments intended to simulate conditions and future experiments on Mars. While it’s impossible to perfectly simulate the experience of living on an alien planet far from Earth, the scientists did their best to get as close as possible, and that involved preparing for every eventuality – including damaged equipment. If a tool used to gather samples breaks on Mars, a scientist can’t just go to the store to grab a new one, so that could be the end of an entire experiment.

Texas A&M University graduate student Mauricio Coen focused his project on avoiding situations like those. With a 3D printer, he believes, broken tools and other necessities could easily be replaced on site.

“We hypothesize that astronauts will be able to adapt more quickly to changing mission goals,” said Coen. “Crew time is one of the most valuable assets in any space exploration mission, and hopefully, 3-D printing embedded in their daily operations will reduce time spent in cumbersome tasks, especially with repairs.”

Michael Muller, Principal Investigator for A3DPT-2-Mars, checks the Skriware 3D printers inside the habitat, in preparation for an upcoming expedition. [Image: OeWF / Florian Voggeneder]

Coen’s project, which was called A3DPT-2-Mars, was one of 18 experiments carried out during the Dhofar simulation, which lasted until the end of February. The research team included astronauts from multiple countries and involved experiments such as growing microgreens in an inflatable greenhouse, analyzing astronauts’ physical and mental fatigue and using a drone for area exploration.

Coen’s project focused on how 3D printing could help with geological sampling, which is a novel experiment – while 3D printers have been used for a while on the International Space Station to 3D printed tools and other supplies, the station has not specifically focused on how 3D printing can be used in the kind of geological testing that would be carried out on Mars.

Analog astronaut Joao Lousada takes a geological sample using a 3D printed modular scoop as part of a scientific expedition outside the habitat. [Image: OeWF / Florian Voggeneder]

Experiments conducted in space must largely be planned out ahead of time and are difficult, if not impossible, to change, as researchers must have the necessary tools and instructions on board with them ahead of time. But a 3D printer could change that, allowing astronauts to 3D print tools as needed and allowing for the kind of fluidity that most experiments end up requiring.

“The good thing about this is that instead of being limited, maybe three months in, NASA can say ‘Hey, you found some interesting geological features in this area we’re investigating, we need you to get an extra 500 samples,'” Coen said. “If you could take a 3-D printer then you could change the mission, it wouldn’t be set in stone four years before it happens. That’s where I think the huge advantage is.”

Having a 3D printer on board a Mars mission would also allow for fewer supplies to be carried along, reducing the weight and cost of the flight. Astronauts could simply 3D print what they needed when they needed it, melting down old tools and using them to produce new ones at any time.

The simulation in the Dhofar desert is the second Mars simulation where Coen has tested his experiment since he came up with the idea less than two years ago. The first was called PMAS 2017 and took place last year in Poland, organized by the Space Exploration Project Group of the Space Generation Advisory Council.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source: Houston Chronicle]

 

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