Although there are many reasons to push for the development of 3D technologies in space, the biggest reason is the striving to save on the shipping. According to NASA, it costs about $10,000 to launch a mere kilogram of cargo into low Earth orbit, and $100,000 to send that same load to the Moon. If we need to send a cargo to Mars, the shipping cost will be immense.
The experts agree that the only possible way of exploring other planets should involve using local materials as structural components, and 3D printing process allows the astronauts to construct everything they need on the spot.
NASA has recently completed the technology competition for the construction using basalt and regolith called In-Situ Materials Challenge.
The winner, a well-known scientist, University of Southern California professor Behrokh Khoshnevis developed entirely new 3D printing process, that he called “Selective Separation Sintering” (SSS).
He describes the technology as “a novel powder-based additive manufacturing method that can build parts of various scale out of polymers, metals, ceramics, and composites.”
The method makes it possible to print small items, such as bricks, interlocking tiles, and various metallic components for the construction of landing pads, roads, solid floors etc.
The winner of In-Situ Materials Challenge received a $10,000 prize for his idea to make further optimization possible.
In 2014 Khoshnevis won NASA Innovative Advanced Concept competition with his Contour Crafting technology that means 3D printing of mega-scale monolithic structures on Earth and in the space using local materials, including basalt.
Unlike gigantic printer Contour Crafting, which lays out paste-like material one layer at a time, SSS-technology is based on powder sintering. Thus, according to the professor, combination of his technologies will help print both small and large objects from in situ materials.
NASA holds a series of competitions aimed at the ideas for space exploration. 2015 saw the final of 3D Printed Habitat Challenge (concepts of habitats on Mars) where the projects of 3D printing from ingenious basalts were awarded. Among them, there is Redworks that continues to develop their project despite the fact they failed to come into the top three.
The composition of planetary soil is one of the priorities for the research. It has been known recently that Chinese rover discovered a previously unknown type of basalt on the Moon.