Flying to the moon is an expensive business. And the more a spacecraft carries, the more costly the expedition.
But what if instead of lugging heavy tools, construction materials, and other amenities to the moon, you could manufacture exactly what you needed when you got there out of the rocks around you?
That’s what a team of researchers at Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering are working on. WSU professor Amit Bandyopadhyay is investigating the possibility of printing 3D objects from a moon-rock-like material, perhaps one day giving astronauts the ability to repair broken parts, manufacture spare ones and even build structures from the raw materials surrounding them.
Three-dimensional printing or fabrication—also known as additive manufacturing—is the process in which a 3D object can be created from computer models by printing out a material—liquid, powder, or sheet material—layer by layer over and over again. Heat and adhesives are usually applied to bond the object.
NASA has a vested interested in learning how astronauts might utilize moon materials while on missions, primarily because it would cut back on the size of payloads that have to be taken from Earth. In 2010, NASA approached Bandyopadhyay.
It supplied Bandyopadhyay with 10 pounds of imitation moon rock—made up of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides—for his research. Bandyopadhyay fed the powder into a 3D printer, heated it and then printed it out in smooth half-millimeter (0.02 inches) layers. The end result was a material about as hard as typical soda lime glass.
Although these initial objects are fairly flimsy, Bandyopadhyay believes that adding materials like titanium to the moon powder could produce stronger objects.
This isn’t the first time 3D printing has suggested itself to space explorers. In 2010, Italian inventor Enrico Dini—founder of Monolite UK—developed a huge printer—called D-Shape—capable of printing entire buildings out of sand and an inorganic binder.
The printer sprays a thin layer of sand followed by a layer of magnesium-based binder from hundreds of nozzles on its underside. The glue turns the sand to solid stone, which is built up layer by layer from the bottom up to form a sculpture, or a sandstone building.
The European Space Agency (ESA) showed some initial interest in the D-Shape printer which Dini claims can create a building four times faster than conventional means, and reduce the cost to half or less.