Future astronauts could use Moon rock and 3D printers to make tools and equipment on site
1st December 2012
Imagine landing on the Moon or Mars, putting rocks into a 3D printer and making something useful – like a needed wrench or replacement part.
"It sounds like science fiction, but now it's really possible,'' says Amit Bandyopadhyay, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University. He and a group of colleagues have published a study in Rapid Prototyping Journal demonstrating how to print parts using materials from the Moon.
Approached by NASA
Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose are well known researchers in the area of 3-D printing for creation of bone-like materials in orthopedic implants. In 2010, researchers from NASA initiated discussion with Bandyopadhyay, asking if the research team might be able to print 3-D objects from Moon rock.
Because of the tremendous expense of space travel, researchers strive to limit what space ships have to carry. Establishment of a lunar or Martian outpost would require using materials in the immediate surrounding environment for construction or repairs. That's where 3-D fabrication technology might come in.
Three-dimensional fabrication technology, also known as additive manufacturing, allows researchers to produce complex 3-D objects directly from computer-aided design (CAD) models, printing the material layer by layer. In this case, the material is heated using a high temperature laser, printing objects like melting candle wax to a desired shape.
Simple shapes built
To test the idea, NASA researchers provided Bandyopadhyay and Bose with 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, an imitation Moon rock that is used for research purposes.
The WSU researchers were concerned about how the Moon rock material – which is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides – would melt. But they found it behaved similarly to silica, and were able to build a few simple shapes. The researchers are the first in the world to demonstrate fabrication of parts using Moon-like material. They sent their pieces to NASA.
"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,'' says Bandyopadhyay.
Tailoring composition, geometry
Using additive manufacturing, the material could also be tailored, the researchers say. If you want a stronger building material, for instance, you could perhaps use Moon rock with Earth-based additives.
"The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry,'' says Bose.
In the future, the researchers hope to show that the lunar material could be used to do remote repairs.
"As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want," says Bandyopadhyay. "It's not that far-fetched.''