While 3D printers are all the rage these days, it's been only recently that I've felt like they've really "arrived." Lately there have been stories of the technology being used in ways that really live up to its potential, from creating a unique medical device for a little girl to printing lab supplies that save time and money for scientific researchers. Now comes research that shows the future potential of the technology -- helping out on space exploration missions.
Engineering researchers at Washington State University were asked by NASA to investigate whether 3D printing could be used to make objects from moon rock. Why? Well, since space travel is so expensive, there are limits to what can be brought on space craft. If we establish any type of outpost on the moon or Mars, there will need to be a way to make needed objects or repair existing objects from available materials.To put the idea to the test, the research team used 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, an imitation moon rock provided by NASA. The material, which is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides, melted and behaved much like silica, so the researchers were able to make a few simple shapes that they sent back to NASA.
"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," says Amit Bandyopadhyay, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.
The researchers say that using additive manufacturing by adding earth-based materials to the moon rock could make for stronger objects. Future studies by the team will see if moon rock could be used in remote repairs.
"It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we'll hear about it in the next few years," says Bandyopadhyay . "As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It's not that far-fetched."