Aerospace

European Space Agency test 3D printing for Mars habitats

Research company Fotec, part of the University of Applied Sciences in Austria, has 3D printed a miniature igloo and corner of a wall in a composite material containing “Mars dust”.

The objects were created as part of the Technology Research Program at the European Space Agency (ESA), headquartered in Paris, France, to demonstrate the possibility of creating structures using a planet’s natural material for construction.

Igloo and corner of a wall 3D printed in Martian regolith simulant material ‘JSC-Mars-1A’ Photo via Fotec
Igloo and corner of a wall 3D printed in Martian regolith simulant material ‘JSC-Mars-1A’ Photo via Fotec

3D printed structures no matter what the destination

The 3D printed miniatures are made out of a composite ink containing Martian regolith simulant material ‘JSC-Mars-1A’. JSC-Mars-1A is made out of volcanic fragments refined by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Grains of Martian regolith simulant, photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor Z22
Grains of Martian regolith simulant, photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor Z22

In a post on the ESA website, Fotec’s Christoph Buchner explains that phosphoric acid is used as a binding agent for the grains of dust to create a 3D printable material. The composite material is then extruded through a nozzle into successive layers.

Buchner comments,

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. So this is a promising step towards ‘in-situ resource utilization’ – the concept of using as much local materials as possible during a planetary mission, to cut down on the launch mass and cost.

Making a life on Mars

Focusing on the potential for humans to one day colonize Mars, a Centennial Challenge from NASA asked participants to pitch projects using recycled or local indigenous materials to create structures on the red planet.

In October 2016, SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office) collaborative won Phase 1 of the challenge with a proposal for a 3D printed Ice House.

The 3D printed Mars Ice House concept by SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office) Image via mars icehouse.com
The 3D printed Mars Ice House concept by SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office) Image via mars icehouse.com

NASA has since enlisted the help of the University of Florida’s Professor Sudipta Seal, interim chair of the Materials Science and Engineering at the university, to find a way to build structures on Mars.

Such projects are however not only reserved for construction in outer space. An ability to work with indigenous, on-site materials is beneficial to 3D printing with the Earth’s soil. It would be useful for building in remote and resource-poor locations.

Such developments are key driving forces behind research at places like the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) in Barcelona, Spain, who collaborated to make the “world’s first” 3D printed bridge.

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Featured image shows a perspective view of Chasma Boreale on the surface of Mars. Image via ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

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