Exploring the Realm of 3D Printing with Materials Sourced from Outer Space: A Scientific Fact Breakdown


“This isn’t just science fiction anymore.”

by Oliver Johnson

21 December 2023



“This isn’t just science fiction anymore,” says Dr. Amit Bandyopadhyay of Washington State University, as we start our chat via Zoom. Bandyopadhyay has held a professorship at the university since 1997. He published a piece on ceramic 3D printing in 2008. The paper hardly caught the attention of the broader AM sector, but NASA expressed interest and inquired if the team would consider 3D printing with Lunar regolith. Bandyopadhyay and his team accomplished this feat in 2011. For those unacquainted, regolith is a blanket of dust and fractured rocks that covers a layer of bedrock on a planet.

Taking payloads into orbit can come with astronomical costs (no pun intended), running into tens of thousands per kilogram. However, 3D printing with regolith and other locally available materials on the Moon or Mars can manufacture parts, which saves both weight and money for establishments like NASA and SpaceX.

3D printing with Lunar regolith presents a difficulty as the material can be very brittle, filled with air pockets and pores when printed 100% in the substance. The subsequent progress for Bandyopadhyay and his team post-Lunar regolith was 3D printing with simulated Martian regolith. When sensibly mixed with titanium, this combination can yield better properties than titanium exclusively.

Bandyopadhyay suggests using the locally available material, regolith, and mixing it with metal to produce usable parts instead of entirely metallic pieces. He mentions that similar approaches have been tried with plastic but without much success due to the lack of strength. The final product, which contains only 5 – 10% regolith, can be coated with a hard ceramic like Martian regolith. This not only serves as a radiation shield but also resists wear and tear.

The ratio of regolith in the content has to be adjusted carefully to ensure the final product has the necessary strength and isn’t brittle or fragile. While Bandyopadhyay and his team have been working on these metal and ceramic combinations for years and find the work exciting, he states there’s still immense potential to explore. These efforts are critical for the success of space missions, as they entail manufacturing in outer space.

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Possibilities that are opened up by the idea of 3D printing with Lunar or Martian based materials include the creation of habitats that would allow people to live on other planets. Construction 3D printing company ICON was awarded a 57.2 million USD contract from NASA in 2022 to develop a Lunar 3D printing construction system, as part of a joint goal to create the first ever construction on another planetary body. The contract builds upon previous NASA and Department of Defense funding for ICON’s ‘Project Olympus’, which aims to develop space-based construction systems to support the planned exploration of the Moon and beyond, using local Lunar and Martian resources as building materials.

In ICON’s press release announcing the NASA contract, Jason Ballard, ICON Co-Founder and CEO, said: “To change the space exploration paradigm from ‘there and back again’ to ‘there to stay’, we’re going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the moon and other planetary bodies. We’re pleased that our research and engineering to-date demonstrated that such systems are indeed possible, and we look forward to now making that possibility a reality. The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement.”

Speaking about the practicality of making the idea of a 3D printed habitat on Mars a reality, Bandyopadhyay told TCT: “The printer needs to function right. So here on Earth, there’s an abundance of electricity available, you can have a high powered laser and you can print something very easily, but when you are on the Moon’s surface or on the surface of Mars, you’re talking about solar power. To make a printer that functions the way that it would here, the power aspect is a big challenge.”

Dr. Bandyopadhyay spoke positively of the recent 57.2 million USD contract awarded to ICON, expressing his excitement over the growth and development it signifies. He highlighted the rapid advances in 3D printing in space, drawing attention to the success of the first 3D printer on the International Space Station. Dr. Bandyopadhyay emphasized the trust and confidence that both the government and technology companies have shown in the practicality of such groundbreaking advancements, including the possibility of building a base on the moon or even Mars within a reasonable timeframe.

A company called Incus has also made strides in the realm of 3D printing in outer space. In 2023, the company announced the success of a project pursued in collaboration with the European Space Agency. The project aimed to establish a zero-waste workflow using resources found on the lunar surface, along with materials recovered from previous missions and satellite debris, using Incus’ Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) to 3D print spare parts.

The objective of the project was to prove the possibility of establishing a sustainable human base on the moon, a prospect that is considered challenging because of potential problems related to the lunar atmosphere, gravity, temperature, radiation, and the possible contamination from moon dust.

Incus CEO Dr. Gerald Miteramskogler explained that the company used a commercially available gas atomiser unit to transform lunar resources and scrap materials into 3D print-compatible metal powders. As a demonstration of this capability, they used titanium recovered from an old aircraft structure. Dr. Miteramskogler noted that since 1959, scientists have estimated there to be around 187,400 kilograms of materials from artificial objects on the surface of the moon.

Speaking to TCT about what the next steps are to achieve the Lunar 3D printing goals of Incus, Miteramskogler said: “Following the successful project, there are still several essential steps to be taken in order to establish a fully functional 3D printing process for lunar operations, and we are eager to continue our efforts in this direction. The ESA project allowed us to demonstrate the feasibility of recycling scrap materials using LMM and highlighted the flexibility and resilience of our process in handling various raw materials. Building upon these achievements, we are now expanding our printer sizes to provide a solution for mass manufacturing using AM. We will be unveiling our Hammer Pro40 production printer at this year’s Formnext event. With this new system, I firmly believe that AM will play a significant role in addressing pressing challenges here on Earth.”

Miteramskogler also spoke about the importance of getting the chemistry of the materials used for 3D printing in outer space right. The Incus CEO told TCT: “It is crucial to consider the entire field of material science when evaluating test results. While impurities can enhance a material’s strength, this often comes at the cost of reduced flexibility, potentially resulting in increased brittleness. This, in turn, may lead to decreased longterm performance and reduced fatigue strength. Altered material properties might be suitable for everyday items in a lunar colony, such as cutlery or single-use surgical equipment. However, for technical or high-performance components like dental implants, tools or fittings, achieving the ideal chemistry of the material remains essential.”

by Oliver Johnson

21 December 2023


Original source


“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”

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