3D Printing On the Moon

Looking up into a clear night sky, the moon glows with a stark white intensity. Although it’s covered with craters, which bring some definition to the otherwise monochromatic surface, the moon appears barren.  It’s this difference that brings the Moon into stark contrast when compared to the Earth.

Scientists think that the Moon was created when a large object smashed into the Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment.  Although the moon was once a part of the Earth, it lacks the Earth’s diversity of materials. This lack of materials isn’t an issue if you’re just going to the moon for a quick jaunt. However, if you’re planning on staying for a bit, it becomes a problem.

As NASA and other private ventures begin to make plans for a possible permanent/semi-permanent return to the Moon, they’re realizing that they’re going to have to bring loads of materials with them on their journey. To cut down on the amount of materials that they’ll have to bring, additive manufacturing is being introduced as a possible solution.

But what’s that you say? We’d still have to bring plastics and metals to extrude from our 3D printers!

Well, that’s where Professor Amit Bandyopadhyay research comes into play.

Prof. Bandyopadhyay and his team at the Washington State University Materials Research Group were asked by NASA if they could figure out a way to take moon rocks and use them as the material to print 3D objects.  NASA gave the team 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, basically a fake moon rock composed of the same material found in real lunar material.

The composition of raw lunar regolith material is somewhat complex, containing silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides. This multi-material composition led Prof. Bandyopadhyay to believe that his group might not be able to melt the material to create a viscous solution suitable for 3D printing. To the group’s surprise when then material was melted, it behaved similar to silica, and that meant it could be used for additive manufacturing.

Plans to return to the Moon are still far off, with the first possible missions arriving sometime around the year 2018. Prof. Bandyopadhyay knows this and has taken the long view on his team’s research. “It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years.” But he does add one caveat, “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.”

Bandyopadhyay and his group recently published their findings in the Rapid Prototyping Journal

Video Courtesy of WSU