Mars is missing in the vast supply of natural resources we are accustomed to here on Earth, and astronauts who try to colonize or even visit the red planet can only bring a limited amount of material. Learning to cope with what Mars has to offer is one of the biggest challenges in visiting our closest neighbor, but the results of the latest ESA 3D space agency's experiments prove that this is not impossible.
We've been sending probes and rovers to Mars, but so far it's just a one-way trip. Our knowledge of what makes Mars is limited to what the Spirit and opportunity can learn from the samples and study the Martian meteorites that have returned to Earth. Like our moon, if there is something that Mars does not miss, it's dust.
So, as a place for real ingredients on Mars, the researchers have turned to a simulated version of the moon soil, also known as the moon regolith.
Working with an Australian company called Lithoz, ESA 3D prints a sample of different parts using a light sensitive bonding agent mixed with regolite – which itself is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium and iron oxides, a very fine powder.
Instead of heating the mixture, it is extruded as a hot glue and they let it cool and harden, the 3D printing technique used here puts very thin layers of reggolite mixture that are exposed to light, resulting in curing of the binder,
The parts are then baked in a furnace to create a hard ceramic material that is not only strong but also has a smooth, even surface texture so as to be compatible with machined parts with very high accuracy. If you've ever held a 3D printed object made of melted plastic, the obvious imperfections on the surface are easy to recognize and problematic for use in precision machines.
The next step for ESA is to thoroughly test the strength and durability of these 3D prints to determine if they can cope with the difficulties of traveling in space and living in a harsh environment. In the end, instead of pulling trailers full of spare parts, the crew with a Mars ship would simply have to bring a digital archive of all the parts used in the ship and other structures, a 3D printer and perhaps a bucket to collect the local soil.[European Space Agency via designboom]