Tools Could Be 3D-Printed Using Dust From Mars, Study Reveals

An exciting new study reveals that engineers could 3D-print tools on Mars made from the planet itself. This could change the future of space travel.

It's a significant discovery because researchers say they can't carry everything out to space, and if they forget a tool on a mission they can't come back to get it. Taking materials out there is hugely expensive. It costs $54,000 to put just 2 pounds of material into the Earth's orbit, noted the study's authors.

As a result, researchers at Washington State University believe 3D-printing is a burgeoning field working to make space travel cheaper and easier. The team discovered small amounts of simulated crushed Martian rock, mixed with titanium alloy, made a strong, high-performance material that could be used to make tools and rocket parts on the Red Planet.

Perseverance on Mars
An illustration of the Perseverance Rover on Mars. An exciting new study reveals that engineers could 3D-print tools on Mars made from the planet itself. This could change the future of space travel. NASA

They made tools using between 5 and 100 percent Martian regolith, a black powdery substance intended to imitate the rocky, inorganic material on Mars' surface that could be collected by a robotic arm or rover.

When it came to adding just 5 percent of Martian dust into the mix, there were no cracks or bubbles, and it was far better than just titanium alloys. They believe this combination could be used to build lighter weight pieces still capable of carrying heavy loads.

"It gives you a better, higher strength and hardness material, so that can perform significantly better in some applications," said study corresponding author Professor Amit Bandyopadhyay.

Ultimaker 3D printer sits on display
An Ultimaker 3D printer sits on display at "New Lab," an advanced manufacturing hub in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on May 9, 2013, in New York City. Researchers at Washington State University believe 3D-printing is a burgeoning field that will make space travel cheaper and easier. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the 100 percent concentration parts were brittle and cracked easily. However, Bandyopadhyay reckons 100 percent Martian rock materials would still be great as coatings to defend against rust or radiation damage.

Alongside graduate students Ali Afrouzian and Kellen Traxel, Bandyopadhyay used a powder-based 3D printer to mix up the fake Martian rock with titanium alloy, a metal commonly used in space because it is strong and heat-resistant.

But more is possible and, writing in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, the team believes there are even better composites to be found using different metals and printing techniques.

"This establishes that it is possible, and maybe we should think in this direction because it's not just making plastic parts which are weak but metal-ceramic composite parts which are strong and can be used for any kind of structural parts," Bandyopadhyay said.

Initially, Bandyopadhyay worked on similar experiments using simulated crushed moon rock - or lunar regolith - for NASA in 2011. Since then, space agencies have worked more and more with 3D printing, and the International Space Station now has its own devices to manufacture the materials they need on site and for experiments.

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This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.