For space scientists dreaming up a manned base on the moon, 3D printing with lunar dust looms as an attractive possibility.
Such on-demand fabrication would allow astronauts to repair broken parts, manufacture spare ones and maybe even build structures, all out of the dirt scooped from under their boots.
In a new study involving artificial moon dust, engineers have shown that the technology is close to becoming reality.
With 10 pounds of simulated lunar dirt (or regolith) in hand, NASA officials approached researchers at Washington State University and challenged them to melt and resolidify the fake moon rock using 3D laser printing technology, which produces objects layer by layer based on a computer model.
The simulant is an expensive combination of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides. Meant to mimic the properties of the regolith found on the moon, the powdery material had a particle structure resembling that of ceramics.
Because of their tendency to crack, ceramics can be tough to manipulate using 3D printers. But the WSU researchers, including husband-and-wife team Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, had previously demonstrated that ceramic-like material can be re-formed with an on-demand fabricator to create custom-made bone scaffolding.
For the new study, the researchers fed the raw simulant powder into a 3D printer, heating the material to high temperatures and printing it out in smooth half-millimeter (0.02 inches) layers to form small cylindrical shapes with no visible cracks. The structures that came out of the printer were about as hard as typical soda lime glass, the researchers explain in a study detailing the recent experiments in the Rapid Prototyping Journal.
“It doesn’t look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,” Bandyopadhyay said in a statement. Bandyopadhyay said additives to the moon dust, such as titanium, could produce stronger objects. But he emphasized in a phone interview with SPACE.com that this technology is still in its first-generation phase and that the study was aimed at showing that the concept works with moon dust alone.