Right now, you can buy 3D printed shoes, 3D printed food, and, yes, even 3D printed fidget spinners. We even have 3D printed body parts.
It’s no surprise that the 3D printing trend is gaining momentum quickly, especially as prices for the printing equipment itself drops. In fact, the 3D printing industry is expected to grow to over $21 billion by 2020.
While most people are looking into 3D printers for terrestrial projects, researchers have their eyes on outer space. This disruptive technology may be the very thing that allows us to explore and inhabit space in the ways humanity has previously only dreamed about in the form of sci-fi novels.
One particularly special characteristic of 3D printers is their ability to print at least some of their own replacement parts. With advancements regarding the parts the devices are able to print, self-replicating printers could be made for the space setting–a technology that could usher in extraterrestrial inhabitation.
Prior advancements in extraterrestrial 3D printing research
In May of 2017, we learned of the REGOLIGHT project from the European Space Agency which uses regolith and solar light in 3D printing. This technology could be used to turn moondust into 3D printed bricks for use in building on the moon and in other extraterrestrial projects.
The use of additive manufacturing in space is a major step towards the inhabitation of it by humans, including settlements on Mars that many high-profile figures such as Elon Musk and Donald Trump seem to be pushing for.
The ability to print tools and other materials upon arrival means we have to carry less “stuff” in order to survive, making for lighter launchers and the ability to stay beyond Earth for longer periods.
Being able to create tools and other necessities from materials actually found on planetary and lunar surfaces rather than carrying printing materials for every project also pushes us closer to our goals.
Self-replicating 3D printers on the moon
One step even further is where researchers are now–printing our own 3D printers in space from extraterrestrial materials.
The moon printers are the brainchild of researchers at Ottawa’s Carleton University, on a team led by Alex Ellery.
While most terrestrial 3D printers can only print their own plastic replacement parts and not their coils, circuit boards, and other integral pieces, learning how to not only create a printer that can print all of its components, but do so in a low-gravity, vacuum environment using only materials found on the moon has proven difficult for the team. Despite the great challenge, they are making substantial progress on the self-replicating lunar 3D printer which is based on the Earth printer called the RepRap.
For heat for the process, the researchers intend to use a Fresnel lens to focus sunlight.
However, the team is still experiencing issues with the electronic components of the device due to the special conditions in space.
In a quote from 3Ders on the subject, Ellery explains “We have looked at vacuum tubes because trying to create solid-state electronics would be virtually impossible on the moon…If you use vacuum tubes, the only materials you need are nickel, tungsten, glass, essentially, and Kovar, all of which you can make on the moon.”
Ellery also explained to them that the printers’ aluminum coils could be replaced with the alloy fernico when printing on the moon.
While they still have several issues to resolve, this project could fundamentally change the way we think of space travel and bring in an age where extraterrestrial inhabitation is an accepted reality.