Using 3D printing to conquer outer space

Everyone has heard of the space race that took place in the 20thth century. The battle between the Soviet Union ended in 1975, but did you know that a new space race has been triggered? This time, scientists around the world are working to achieve a number of goals, including working to find a way to colonize other planets and make it suitable for humans to live in outer space. To achieve this goal, 3D printing is one of the leading technologies considered for space colonization thanks to its adaptability, cost-effectiveness and of course the ability to use local materials, a key necessity if we really want to move to other planetary bodies . We took a closer look at some of the many different ways additive manufacturing is used to make it possible to live on the Moon or on other planets in our solar system.

ICON and NASA are creating a 3D-printed surface habitat for Mars

In another project to bring us closer to future space exploration, NASA turned to 3D printing and specifically the expertise of the renowned 3D printing company ICON. In the latest project, which will take a look at the possibilities of creating habitats on other planets, the startup has recently announced that it will 3D-print a simulated Mars Surface Habitat in collaboration with the architectural firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, which will be the first ever of its kind. Named MARS DUNE ALPHA, the estimated structure of 1,700 square feet will be used to simulate a realistic Mars habitat in NASA’s annual Mars mission analog study. Once production is complete, the model will be delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, located in Houston, Texas.

Image credits: ICON

Life on Mars through 3D printing?

Since 2014, NASA has been running a competition called the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, which aims to imagine structures that could be 3D-printed in space to support life on a planet other than Earth. One of the projects that won awards a few years ago was the MARSHA project, which developed a concept for 3D-printed houses on Mars. The American company AI Spacefactory is behind these conical structures, which are 34 square meters in size. It would depend on the resources available on the red planet to build the small houses and thus free itself from the constraints of transporting materials from Earth. Finally, MARSHA is designed with a double-shell system to isolate the habitable spaces from the structural constraints caused by temperature changes on Mars.

3D print space

Image Credits: AI Spacefactory

3D-printed spacesuits to colonize the red planet

It’s no secret that many projects are being developed to get to Mars. If it’s important to know how to get there, it’s just as important to make sure we can set foot on the planet without dying. This is why companies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working on the topic. With this in mind, the Mars One company, launched in 2011, has come up with a space suit designed using 3D technologies. Thanks to digitization and additive manufacturing, the company has developed a suit perfectly adapted to the morphology of astronauts to ensure survival on Mars.

3D print space

Photo credits: Mars One

Zebro robots pave the way to colonize Mars

Researchers at Delft University of Technology have found another way to use 3D printing to help build structures on Mars, this time with robots! Delft’s Zebro Swarm Robots are designed to excavate underground living spaces on the red planet using 3D printing to solidify walls with materials from Mars. The swarms of autonomous robots will function in the same way as ants building a colony, communicating with each other and sharing tasks while digging underground. Scientists hope that living underground would be more suitable for humans on Mars, as the strong temperature changes present on the planet would be less noticeable. In fact, ESA itself has recognized the importance of the project and given the team a grant to further develop it.

3D print space

Luyten and 3D print structures on the moon

Like several companies, Luyten specializes in additive manufacturing for space exploration. As part of the Meeka project, the Australian 3D printer manufacturer is collaborating with the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The goal of this program is to use the Platypus Galacticus 3D printer to build structures on the moon. Using this technology and from regolith, a lunar material, the company hopes to build structures up to 12 meters long and 9 meters high. In addition, to identify areas that can be built, Luyten plans to send rovers to accompany Platypus Galacticus. Some will be able to assess the areas while others will gather regolith.

Photo credits: Luyten

3D bioprint in the room

Life in space is obviously not always fun; the lack of gravity greatly affects the bones and muscles of astronauts. That’s why ESA researchers have been working on a 3D bioprint project to design skin and bone samples. The printing process was performed in reverse to prove that it can be transferred to the space under micro gravity conditions. If astronauts could have a 3D bioprinter on their trips, they would be able to respond to medical emergencies – in case of burns, the crew could, for example, print new skin. In the case of ESA, several skin and bone samples were 3D-printed from plasma, methylcellulose and alginate.

Sample printed with human skin cells using human blood plasma as a nutrient-rich bio-ink (Photo credits: ESA – SJM Photography)

Moon Village, the 3D-printed moon base

Today, 3D printers can be used to print all kinds of parts, from cars to houses to bodies. The potential of technology is enormous, and the European Space Agency (ESA) knows it. In cooperation with Russia and China, ESA wants to 3D-print a lunar base called “Moon Village”. To achieve this, scientists aim to use lunar materials, as it is too expensive to transport materials from Earth. Therefore, experts in additive manufacturing and the aerospace industry have been working for several years to investigate the feasibility of the project, which currently seems feasible.

The Moonrise project

In January 2021, for the first time, a team of researchers from the Technical University of Braunschweig and the Laser Zentrum Hannover (LZH) succeeded in 3D printing of regolith. To perform this experiment, called “Moonrise”, the scientists equipped a lunar rover with a laser to melt lunar materials and obtain regolith. When this step was completed, the researchers used the IRAS MIRA3D rover, a lunar spacecraft specifically designed for 3D printing in space. Thanks to the claimed team behind the project to be able to design objects from regolith. A first that in the future could open the field for possible construction on the Moon.

3D print space

Image credits: LZH

3D-printed bioadhesive bandaids

As part of the space mission called Cosmic Kiss, where various tests are performed by astronauts on the ISS, German astronaut Matthias Mauerer recently tested the use of bioprinted adhesive patches in space. Bioprint FirstAid, as these innovative plaster strips are called, has the ultimate goal of making future medical first aid in deserted areas or under extreme conditions easier. The hand-held mechanical bioprinter is used by applying it directly to the desired location on the skin, where it immediately prints a plaster-like strip using a special bio-ink. Due to the compact shape and easy handling of the printer, the researchers behind the project see its possible future use in medical practice as well as in complex areas such as space or on earth such as the Arctic region.

3d print space

The LavaHive project

We talked about it earlier, in March 2015 NASA launched the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. And among the 160 entries, there was one in particular that stood out to the jury. The concept called LavaHive was developed by members of the European Astronaut Center and the Austrian group Liquifer Systems. Like the Moonrise project, the researchers’ idea was to use regolith as a 3D print material. Specifically, the LavaHive project incorporates an inflatable central habitat reinforced with walls 3D printed from the lunar material. In addition, to achieve a sufficiently large living space, this inflatable zone is connected by three subhabitats, with a kind of tunnel that is also 3D-printed.

3D print space

Image credits: LavaHive

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