3D Printing Moon Rock for Mars

It’ll be at least 15 years before you can visit Mars, says the European Space Agency (ESA), as funding has limited the development of technology to make such a trip possible.

“If there was enough money then we could possibly do it earlier but there is not as much now as the Apollo programme had,” ESA Director-General Jan Woerner said, referring to the US project which landed the first people on the moon.

However, a big step in making a human trip to Mars could be the use of 3D printers to create useful tools from the moon rock. These essential items could then be used for the two year trip to Mars. This step would also include permanent human settlement on the moon.

It is hoped that NASA will send Astronauts to Mars in the year 2030. Businessman Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motos, says he plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars from as early as 2018, and then have humans there by 2030. Woerner, of ESA, thinks this will take longer. A spacecraft on Mars would not only need fuel to get there, but also rockets and fuel with enough power to lift the spacecraft back off of the planet to return home. The humans aboard would also need to be protected from the extreme physical and mental challenges, as well as deep-space radiation.

Woerner is hoping to see a cluster of research laboratories on the moon, naming them a “moon village”, with the intention of replacing the current International Space Station (ISS) when it comes to the end of its lifecycle. This “moon village” would also be used to test technologies needed for the trip to Mars. It is hoped this project could be funded and operated by a group of both private and public bodies from around the globe, Woerner said in an interview at the ESA’s Operations Centre.

“There are various companies and public agencies asking to join the club now, so they want to do different things, resource mining, in situ research, tourism and that kind of stuff. There is a big community interested,” he told Reuters.

“The moon village is a pit stop on the way to Mars,” Woerner said, adding that new 3D printing technology could be used to build material and structures out of rocks and dust, doing away with the cost of transporting everything needed for a mission.

“To test how to use lunar material to build some structures, not only houses, but also for a telescope or whatever, will teach us also how to do it on Mars,” he said.

Whilst working with Russia, the ESA sent a spacecraft on a seven month journey in March, as a part of the ExoMars mission. This project uses an atmospheric probe to seek out signs of life on Mars as well as deploy a lander to test the technology needed for a rover which is scheduled to also be sent to Mars in 2020. It was said by Woerner that Europe was looking at ways to cut the costs for launches, without copying Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who are currently developing cheaper, reusable launch vehicles.

“We should not copy. To follow and copy does not bring you into the lead. We are looking for totally different approaches,” Woerner said, adding the ESA was examining all manner of new technologies, including air-breathing engines that do not need to tap into oxygen from a spacecraft’s tank.