Researchers at Washington State University have devised a way for 3D printers to fashion small objects out of lunar rocks.
The new innovation could see future moon expeditions be conducted with less equipment as a digital file would prove sufficient.
A recently published paper in Rapid Prototyping Journal outlines a process by which a mission asset - mostly likely hardware - can be fabricated from melted simulated lunar materials via an additive manufacturing process referred to as LENS (Laser Engineered Net Shaping).
"The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry,’’ says Susmita Bose, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.
The technology utilises computer-aided design (CAD) models in the layer by layer printing mechanism, which sees lunar regolith simulant – a synthetic material used by researchers to mimic Moon rocks - heated to high temperatures by a laser and then remodelled into a desired shape.
"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,’’ says fellow researcher, Amit Bandyopadhyay.
The material in use was provided by NASA, who began to liaise with the WSU research team in 2010. The ongoing relationship between the two parties resulted in the provisioning of 10 pounds of raw lunar simulant.
"It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years,’’ says Bandyopadhyay.
"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.’’
For more, why not check out our recent feature on the consumer applications of 3D printing technology?