Martian soil could serve as a 3D-printing material, researchers have shown, meaning it could be used to manufacture items on the Red Planet.
In a series of tests, Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor at the Washington State University School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and his team used simulated crushed Martian regolith to demonstrate its capabilities as a 3D-printing material.
The results may be crucial for future crewed missions to Mars.
"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," Bandyopadhyay said in a statement (opens in new tab). "And if we forgot something, we cannot come back to get it."
In addition to addressing logistical problems, Mars manufacturing would reduce costs. On the space shuttle, for example, every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of payload ferried to low Earth orbit cost NASA $54,000.
The average distance between Earth and Mars is 140 million miles (225 million km), and the cost would be exponentially higher to get supplies to the Red Planet than to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.
In most of the 3D-printing tests, the researchers blended different amounts of simulated Martian regolith with a titanium alloy. They also attempted to make a 3D-printing material out of pure simulated regolith.
They heated the dry ingredients to 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius) and then poured the melted material into a 3D printer to make the material into a variety of shapes and sizes. The researchers tested each object for strength and durability.
The team discovered that a mixture containing 5% regolith was harder and stronger than the titanium alloy alone. The pure regolith cracked as it cooled after printing, but the team suggested it could be used for radiation shield coating, which would not be affected by the cracks.
"This establishes that [3D printing with regolith] is possible, and maybe we should think in this direction because it's not just making plastic parts, which are weak, but metal-ceramic composite parts, which are strong and can be used for any kind of structural parts," Bandyopadhyay said in the statement.
The team's research was published July 24 in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology (opens in new tab).