Recent research at Washington State University has shown that it should be possible to use a 3D printer to create objects from melted lunar rock material. The Moon is currently seen as a stepping stone for other long range space missions to Mars, even though President Obama canceled Nasa’s project to return to the Moon by 2020. Researchers have been exploring ways of minimizing the amount of materials sent into space by utilizing those already present on the Moon. This will save large amounts of energy and money if equipment can be made on the Moon so that it doesn’t have to be transported in a rocket from the Earth’s surface.
WSU’s Professor Amit Bandyopadhyay was tasked by NASA in 2010 to see whether it was possible to use lunar rocks in a 3D printer. As real lunar rocks brought back during the Apollo missions are seen as a US national treasure, NASA supplied lunar regolith simulant. This simulated Moon rock is composed of silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides.
The research team were able to print simple 3D shapes using melted lunar regolith using a specially developed 3D printer nozzle. The material was melted with a laser before being fed into the printer nozzle. But some experts are saying that simple shapes will not be enough and more precise 3D printing methods will have to be developed if it is going to be useful to create parts for equipment.
“It would be nice if you could do that but I’m not sure it would work – it depends whether it is a simple mechanical component or something more complex,” Prof Pillinger, who was behind the Beagle-2 mission to Mars, told BBC News.
But others are more positive and hope that 3D printing technology can help save large amounts of energy and money if and when the Moon is colonized.