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OM in the News: 3-D Printing Heads for the Moon and Mars

April 15, 2015
The European Space Agency's proposed moon colony to be built on site by a robotic 3-D printer using lunar dust as ink

The European Space Agency’s proposed moon colony to be built on site by a robotic 3-D printer using lunar dust as ink

Dutch television producers chose 100 contestants in February to vie for a one-way trip to Mars. If all goes as advertised, winners might be landing there sometime in 2027. They’ll quickly need permanent shelter. The nearest Home Depot will be 140 million miles away. The only readily available construction material on Mars is sand.

That might be all they need if a plan by NASA works out, reports The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2015). NASA is experimenting with a 3-D printer that would make bricks suitable for airtight buildings and radiation-proof shelters using the grit that blows across Mars’s red surface. In Huntsville, NASA’s 3-D printer is starting to print curved walls and other structures using imitation Martian sand as an ink.

And engineers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are exploring ways to use lunar dust as an ink to print out an entire moon base. On a recent trial run, ESA used a 3-D stereo-lithography printing process that can print objects up to 19 feet long on each side. They mixed simulated lunar dust with magnesium oxide and printed out stone-like building blocks weighing one-and-a-half tons each. That could reduce the need to launch raw materials into orbit at a cost of thousands of dollars per pound. “It would be economically impossible to send all these bricks from Earth to the Moon,” said an engineer at ESA.

And if astronauts ever do reach Mars, they may survive the journey by eating pizza made with a 3-D-printed food system for long duration space missions. Aboard the international space station last December, one astronaut printed out a ratchet wrench—the first tool to be printed in orbit. Typically, an astronaut might have to wait a year or more for a new tool to be shipped into orbit. In all, the crew printed 25 experimental parts.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Will 3-D printing revolutionize space travel?

2. How can this technology be used by operations managers on earth?



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