Mar 23, 2017 | By Tess

An Austrian research team has successfully completed a test wherein it 3D printed structural samples out of simulated Mars dust. Though the prints are small in scale, the research project marks a significant step towards realizing the goal of 3D printing structures and even compounds on Mars using the planet’s local materials.

3D printed mars simulant structures, with euro coin for scale

(Image: Fotec)

In recent times, space exploration research has had its eye fixed on the red planet and the potential to send a manned mission to it. 3D printing, with its growing importance within the aerospace field, is expected to play a crucial part when humans finally do get to Mars.

One of the most significant potential applications for additive manufacturing on Mars would be for 3D printing structures made out of materials sourced from the planet. This, of course, would allow for early Mars colonists to build protective structures without having to send heavy building materials into space from Earth—itself a massively expensive option.

Now, thanks to research coming out of Fotec, the research branch of the University of Applied Sciences in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, this goal is seeming all the more feasible. Working for the European Space Agency (ESA), Fotec researchers were able to 3D print a small igloo and corner wall structure out of a material called JSC-Mars-1A, which is volcanic soil from Earth that has been processed to match the characteristics of martian soil.

As Christopher Buchner, a Fotec researcher, explained: “The material was mixed with phosphoric acid serving as a binding ‘ink,’ then extruded through a nozzle and deposited in successive layers. 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.”

The 3D printed test objects, though tiny, represent the types of structures that Mars colonists would need to built on Mars, so the success of the prints is no small feat. In fact, the project marks an exciting step forwards for what the researchers call “in-situ resource utilization,” which is the idea of using locally sourced materials on planetary missions in an effort to cut back as much as possible on launch mass (and cost).

According to ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya, who oversaw the project, the 3D printed tests were part of the ESA’s larger “Limited resources manufacturing technologies” initiative, which is supported by the Technology Research Programme, which seeks out new and innovative technologies for the advancement of space exploration.

“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," commented Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Materials and Processes Section. "For such missions, in-situ manufacturing will be key, so we are developing a wide variety of capabilities."

With this project, the ESA seems to be on the same page as engineering professor and NASA collaborator Behrokh Khoshnevis, who has very publicly stated that the future of Mars habitats and colonies will rely on 3D printing local materials.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Materials

 

 

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