3D printing houses on Mars with NASA and the University of Central Florida

NASA has enlisted a professor from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in order to find a way of 3D printing structures on Mars.

Pegasus Professor Sudipta Seal, interim chair of UCF’s Materials Science and Engineering program is looking at how metals can be extracted from Martian soil. Speaking about the project, Seal said,

It’s essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it.

Printing full-scale structures is possible with 3D printing, as we’ve seen with America’s first 3D printed houses. 3D printed concrete construction has also been attempted by Dutch company CyBe. However, shipping concrete to Mars is obviously not a feasible option and therefore using the materials already in space to create structures is an active area of research. 3D Printing Industry took a look at one such project addressing the use of in situ materials for off world construction and plans to bring a microwave 3D printer to the moon.

PT Scientists collaborate on Audi Lunar Quattro Rover. Image via Audi.
PT Scientists collaborate on Audi Lunar Quattro Rover. Image via Audi.

3D printing in space, the state of the art 

There is already a 3D printer in space thanks to American company, Made in Space. The company recently entered into an agreement with fellow space company Axiom Space. The partnership will use 3D printing to facilitate creation of the first privately owned Space Station.

However, extracting metals from Martian soil is a whole new process to master. The process UCF and NASA are working on is known as ‘molten regolith electrolysis’. Regolith, aka moon dust, is in short supply on earth and while simulants exist these do not mirror the exact composition of the “soil” found on Mars or on the Moon. However, according to UCF, the refinement process is not too dissimilar to extracting metals here on earth.

The University of Central Florida explains how this process would work. The astronauts would feed Martian soil (regolith) into a chamber which would be heated to approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1648°C). This would produce oxygen and molten metal. Professor Sudipta Seal is helping NASA understand how the resulting metal could be used in a 3D printer.

Financing the Mission to Mars at the IAC. Photo by Michael Petch.
Elon Musk explaining how he intends to finance the Mission to Mars at the IAC. Photo by Michael Petch.

UAE building Martian city

It’s not just NASA looking at building on Mars. The United Arab Emirates has also just unveiled their plans to build a colony on Mars. The project, known as Mars 2117, has a longer time frame than Elon Musk’s plans to start sending humans to Mars in the next ten years. Within the next 40-100 years, Musk hopes to develop a colony of 1 million people on the red planet. The Government of Dubai’s say the focus will be on developing the infrastructure for producing the engineering minds required before they plan on reaching Mars next century.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi said that,

The new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits, driven by its passion to learn to unveil a new knowledge.

Using 3D printing to create structures on Mars is also the focus of a competition from NASA. The U.S. space agency recently hosted a design competition for building on Mars and the of phase 1 winner was ICE HOUSE which used 3D printing and ice to create a igloo-like structure.

3D Printing Industry will be attending this weeks Additive Manufacturing for Defense, Aerospace and Space Conference to hear more about similar applications for 3D printing. Speakers at the event include Professor Moataz Attallah from the University of Birmingham, NASA’s Dr. Raymond ‘Corky’ Clinton and ESA’s Dr. Tommaso Ghidini. Representatives from leading space and aerospace companies using additive manufacturing including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE and BAE Systems will also be giving presentations.

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Featured image shows the ICE HOUSE design for 3D printing a house made of ice on Mars. Image via Mars ICE House.