A team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU) has turned a simulated version of Mars rock into a “high-performance material” that can be fed into a 3D printer.
In a blog post (opens in new tab)the academics explained that the development could make it possible to manufacture essential tools and rocket parts on Mars itself, solving a variety of problems associated with the need to transport heavy payloads to the Red Planet.
“In space, 3D printing is something that has to be done if we want to come up with a manned mission, because we really can’t transport everything from here,” explains Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor at WSU. “And if we’ve forgotten something, we can’t come back to get it.”
3D printing on Mars
Not only are space missions limited by payload capacity, but transporting heavy materials into space is also exceptionally expensive. As explained in the blog post, it costs about $54,000 for a NASA shuttle to put just one kilogram of material into Earth’s orbit, let alone transport it to Mars.
“Anything that can be made in space or on the planet would save weight and money — not to mention that if something breaks, astronauts need a way to fix it on the spot,” WSU wrote. .
To create a viable material, the researchers combined simulated rock dust from Mars with a titanium alloy selected for its strength and heat-resistant properties, and heated the materials to more than 2,000 degrees Celsius using a high-powered laser.
Although a ceramic made entirely of Martian dust cracked when cooled, the team found that a mixture of 5% rock and 95% alloy was both lighter and stronger than titanium alloy alone.
Given the amounts involved, even a small reduction in carrying weight can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars saved. Similarly, in the future, new techniques may be discovered that allow materials that are largely composed of Martian rock to be used in 3D printing processes.
“[Our technique] gives you a better material with higher strength and hardness, so it can perform significantly better in some applications,” said Bandyopadhyay.
“This establishes that [creating composites suitable for 3D printing] is possible, and maybe we should think in this direction, because it’s not just about making plastic parts that are weak, but about metal-ceramic composite parts that are strong and can be used for any kind of structural parts.”