60-Second Space

3-D Printer Makes Structures with Lunar-Like Material

A proof-of-concept 3-D printing job using lunarlike material shows that quick-and-dirty tools or spare parts could be manufactured on the moon. John Matson reports

Imagine that you’re stationed at a lunar colony, some decades in the future, when your moon monkey wrench breaks. You have two choices: wait for a replacement tool in the next cargo shipment a month away, or just make one on the spot. The do-it-yourself option recently got a boost, when researchers demonstrated the feasibility of 3-D custom parts printing using raw materials available on the moon.

The team, which included researchers from NASA and Washington State University, worked with a 3-D printer that melts powdered feedstock with lasers and then layers the melted powder into solid structures. Real lunar regolith is too precious to melt down, so they fed the printer with imitation lunar soil—a close chemical match to the real thing.

In the demo, the researchers produced cylinders of various sizes and reported that the melted regolith was free of cracks. The research appears in the Rapid Prototyping Journal. [Vamsi Krishna Balla et al., First demonstration on direct laser fabrication of lunar regolith parts]

The printed parts are still a bit rough around the edges, though—they resemble rusty lengths of iron. One of the team members remarked that “It doesn’t look fantastic, but you can make something out of it.”

—John Matson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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