The answer to 3D printing equipment on Mars might lie in the Red Planet's dust

Talk about dirt cheap

Scientists claim they have fed a strong titanium alloy and a sprinkling of simulated Martian regolith into a 3D printer to study how future astronauts may one day be able to print tools and rocket parts in space.

Sending anything to space is expensive. It cost NASA about $54,000 per kilogram just to get something into Earth's orbit using space shuttles, according to research published this summer in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, while SpaceX lists prices starting at $1.2 million to launch a 200kg payload.

A team of academics led by Washington State University (WSU) in the US believe launch costs can be cut if objects can be directly 3D printed in space instead of having to be flown in from Earth.

"In space, 3D printing is something that has to happen if we want to think of a manned mission because we really cannot carry everything from here," Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and co-author of the study, opined in a statement on Tuesday. "And if we forget something, we cannot come back to get it."

Ideally, future astronauts will be able to obtain all the materials they need on the Moon or Mars to 3D print stuff. Therefore, researchers wanted to test whether Martian regolith could be used to create useful materials using a 3D printer.

To do so, they first forged a substance mimicking the combination of aluminium oxide, silica, iron oxide, and calcium oxide found on the Red Planet, and combined it with a titanium alloy powder. The material was then melted by a laser in a 3D printer, and deposited layer by layer to form a new object.

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After the printed object cooled, the researchers tested its various physical properties – and found it was stronger than titanium alloy alone.

"If we add any ceramic to metal, they are called composites," Bandyopadhyay told The Register this week.

"Adding ceramics increases the strength as it makes the materials much harder. Since the regolith is primarily a ceramic material, the addition of Martian regolith improves the strength of the titanium metal." 

The composite material is strong enough to withstand high temperatures, making it potentially useful in roles such as engine parts. Adding higher concentrations of the simulated Martian dust, however, made the composite material more brittle. Composites made with just five percent fake regolith were strong, but at 100 percent the material cracked easily.

Although the material seems promising, trying to operate a 3D printer on Mars introduces other difficulties.

"We have gravity on Earth. It is different on Mars. So, it is not just regular 3D printing; we need to consider the Mars environment to print something. Fortunately, the 3D printing technology has come a long way, and we are not far away from printing on the Lunar or Martian surfaces. We need to capture Solar energy to run these systems," Bandyopadhyay told us. 

He hopes to 3D print more parts using different mixtures of metals and regolith in the future. Bandyopadhyay said the experiments show 3D printing using materials from the Moon and Mars is possible. Time will tell if it will become reality. ®

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