Feb 23, 2017 | By Benedict

Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, is working with NASA to develop a system for 3D printing habitats on Mars made of powder-like materials found on the planet.

3D printing could be used to build human habitats on Mars

Mars crops up surprisingly frequently in the 3D printing industry. No, the planet itself was not 3D printed, nor has Stratasys opened up a new manufacturing facility there, but the Red Planet has been the subject of a number of speculative 3D printing projects that are aiming to create human habitats there. Just last month, NASA unveiled the partially 3D printed Ice Dome, a Mars architecture concept that has been under development for several years.

Many experts in the fields of architecture, engineering, and space exploration seem to think that 3D printing could prove useful for constructing Mars habitats, if and when humans finally reach the fourth planet from the Sun. The general reasoning is that 3D printers can be packed up to a relatively compact size, sent to Mars, and then used to print with either highly compacted materials shipped on the same rocket, or with natural materials found on the planet.

The 3D printed Mars Ice Dome and its Ice House predecessor are currently generating a lot of interest, largely thanks to their NASA seal of approval. However, Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor at the University of Southern California, has different ideas about how additive manufacturing could be used to build habitats on Mars. The engineering expert has, since 2011, also been working with NASA, and thinks the powder-like regolith covering the surface of Mars would be a better building material than ice.

A 3D printable habitat designed by Behrokh Khoshnevis

Khoshnevis says he has already carried out a number of experiments using materials that look similar to those found on Mars, in terms of their shape and oxide percentages. “I built some very primitive things, melting the materials to see if I could use the heat to change the sand into rock,” the professor told CNN. “I wanted to see if the stimulants could be melted and extruded, and if I could use them in my 3D printing idea.”

According to Khoshnevis, the surface materials on Mars would provide space explorers with an ideal 3D printing material—just as long as they can get the 3D printing equipment over there. Once set up on the planet, the 3D printers could theoretically be programmed to work autonomously, printing and assembling structures made up of local materials. Automation, Khoshnevis says, would be key, since long signal delays would prevent humans from controlling the machinery in real time from Earth.

Interestingly, Khoshnevis seems to suggest that other 3D printed Mars habitat concepts—think the popular Ice Dome project—wouldn’t actually work. The Ice Dome proposes using large inflatable windows made of Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), something Khoshnevis thinks would be impossible: “Inflatables are made of polymeric material, like vinyl, so they won't survive long because the radiation on Mars is pretty intense. Radiation is the enemy of polymers, causing it to become weak and fragile.”

Behrokh Khoshnevis thinks the NASA-approved Ice Dome, pictured here, would fail

Of course, before people started getting serious about building habitats on Mars, there was also a time when various national space agencies were serious about setting up base on the Moon. Although our only permanent natural satellite seems to have taken a back seat in recent times, Khoshnevis, using his own 3D printing technique called “contour crafting,” has also designed 3D printable habitats that could theoretically be fabricated on the Moon. These low-cost habitats could also be made on Earth to provide emergency shelter in areas where housing is in short supply.

“I believe building in space is going to become commonplace in less than 50 years,” Khoshnevis added. “All we have to do is design self-replicating factories and build a lot of objects. In a short time, our capability to manufacture in space will be many times what we can do on Earth.”

 

 

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