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As scientists prepare for the next stage in space exploration and the construction of a lunar base, there is a challenge. What do you do if something breaks? How do you ship repairs from Earth?
The answer is you don’t. Astronauts can use 3D printing to build repairs from moon dust.
Researchers at Washington State University have successfully simulated this process using a composite material similar to moon dust.
The simulant is an expensive combination of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides. Meant to mimic the properties of the regolith found on the moon, the powdery material had a particle structure resembling that of ceramics.
Because of their tendency to crack, ceramics can be tough to manipulate using 3D printers. But the WSU researchers, including husband-and-wife team Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, had previously demonstrated that ceramic-like material can be re-formed with an on-demand fabricator to create custom-made bone scaffolding.
For the new study, the researchers fed the raw simulant powder into a 3D printer, heating the material to high temperatures and printing it out in smooth half-millimeter (0.02 inches) layers to form small cylindrical shapes with no visible cracks. The structures that came out of the printer were about as hard as typical soda lime glass, the researchers explain in a study detailing the recent experiments in the Rapid Prototyping Journal.
“It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years,” Bandyopadhyay said. “As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It’s not that far-fetched.”
Moon photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons license.