3D printing supplies and settlements for future colonists of other planets
Packing is a drag, especially if you’re trying to save on rocket fuel. While airlines are charging obnoxious fees to check luggage on a flight, those costs aren’t bad compared to the expense of sending heavy tools and raw materials in a spaceship bound for the Moon or Mars. Any future colonists will need some supplies and shelter wherever they go, but engineers are looking for ways to lighten that load as much as possible, ideally skipping the raw materials and leaving the home-building to someone else.
Shapes from the soil
There’s no hardware store on either the Moon or Mars (yet?) and so astronauts will likely be fabricating their own tools, like some sort of cosmic game of Minecraft. Instead of a crafting table, astronauts will likely rely on 3D printing to make tools that would be otherwise too heavy and bulky to pack in a spaceship. They will bring along some solvents and biopolymers to bind things together, but the bulk of these objects will be made from Martian or Moon dust.
Early tests of this concept look promising. Researchers from Northwestern University made up batches of simulated space dirt based on our previous sampling and measurements, then tried printing some tools, construction materials and even Lego-esque interlocking bricks. The results were tough and slightly flexible, which would make them well suited to being jostled around in harsh environments. The next step is to investigate baking the rubbery creations to see if they can be hardened like a ceramic.
Once the astronauts have printed up some non-Legos to play with, they can sit back while a robot 3D prints a house for them. A research group from MIT has built a mostly autonomous robot that was able to build a dome 50 feet in diameter in less than 14 hours. The dome included features like a built-in, overhanging bench, and future iterations should be able to handle insulation, wiring, plumbing and more. By customizing the design to match specific needs and environments, materials can be used more efficiently, avoiding waste or compromises necessitated by standardized, bulk materials like pre-cut lumber.
The 50-foot dome was fast, but autonomy is another goal for these larger 3D printers. The plan is that they can be mounted on tracks like a bulldozer, carry a scoop and hooks to manipulate raw materials (like Martian dirt!) and then print a building with no human intervention. The benefits of having a home in place for our first Martian colonists are obvious, but even on Earth a robot preparing houses can make construction safer and viable in places that would otherwise be hard to deal with, such as disaster relief zones.
Source: The First Mars Colony Could Be 3D Printed From Red Planet Dust by Tia Ghose, Live Science