You’ve probably heard a lot about the possibilities of 3D printing in construction lately. In fact, houses and even entire neighborhoods are already being built using 3D printing. Now, this technology could be used beyond our home planet. With the help of NASA and innovative architecture companies, we might just see 3D printed structures on Mars in the near future.

A Difficult Journey

Mars is our closest neighbor planet, but it would still take one of our spacecrafts 9 months to reach. And once you get there, the planet is far from friendly. The atmosphere on Mars is 95% unbreathable carbon dioxide. Average temperatures on the planet land at around -80 degrees fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures can reach a staggering -220 degrees fahrenheit. 

Despite the extreme risk and technological challenge, many are determined to get us there. NASA has said it hopes to send people to Mars by the 2030’s while SpaceX’s Elon Musk hopes to land astronauts in the late 2020s. 

No matter who makes it there first, one thing is clear: in order for humans to be able to stay for the amount of time needed for research and exploration, they will need safe, livable structures. According to NASA, 3D printing remains the most viable solution for Mars habitation.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, is a set of technologies that creates 3D objects by adding material to make a whole. Essentially, 3D printers take a design from a digital file and “print” it out in sequential layers. This can come in as simple a form as creating a chess piece, to as complex as rocket engine parts. 

In construction, 3D printing works in pretty much the same way but on a larger scale. Some materials currently in use for 3D printing in construction are concrete, cement, mortar, plastic, mud, rice waste, sand, and even metal and stone. 

Now, new research shows that Mars’ soil itself could be a viable material for 3D printing structures.

3D Printing on Mars

In several studies done at the University of Washington, researchers found that Martian soil, when mixed with titanium alloy, was able to be converted into a material that was not only strong, but able to be 3D printed into buildable objects. This discovery could prove to be crucial, as 3D printing is poised to be the favorite method of construction for structures on Mars.

3D printing would be favorable for building on Mars for a variety of reasons. The robots used to 3D print structures are typically relatively lightweight and mobile. This would allow engineers and scientists to adapt and move their construction sites without difficulty. The printer itself could be made using a self-driving robot that could set up and print itself. This means that the robots could built the habitat before human beings even step foot on the red planet.

Benefits of Using Martian Soil 

Using building materials that already exist on Mars would be hugely beneficial. It is already extremely difficult to get to Mars. Russia has lost 16 of 21 Mars rockets and the US has lost 5 of 23 on the treacherous journey– and neither have been able to send a living person to the planet. Getting to Mars with a large amount of cargo could be next to impossible. Furthermore, if NASA leaves any material behind or makes any mistakes, it would be a long 302,160,000 million miles to go to Earth and back to get it. Having the materials already available once crews arrive would leave much more room for error.

Additionally, it costs NASA a whopping $54,000 to get just over 2lbs of cargo from Earth to low Earth Orbit and even more to get to Mars. Being able to cut payload weight by however many tons 3D printing material would have weighed, would drastically decrease the price of transport.

Project Olympus

It’s not all theoretical, NASA recently contracted ICON, a construction technologies company based in Austin, Texas, to help design and build a 3D printed habitat capable of being used on the Moon and Mars. The company contributed to NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, where they demonstrated technology with potential to be used on other planets. 

ICON will work on a project they call “Project Olympus,” where they will design and to build 3D printed landing pads, roads, and shelters on both Mars and the Moon. ICON has also already 3D-printed a simulated Mars habitat called Mars Dune Alpha, which NASA plans to use to train potential Mars astronauts.

Why Go to Mars in the First Place?

Often referred to as the next frontier of space travel, getting to Mars has long been a goal. But, besides satisfying a taste for adventure, NASA says that “Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system . . . Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?” 

Another reason to study Mars is that scientists say that while “ arose and evolved on Earth, Mars experienced serious climate change.” Being able to study Mars will help us understand the evolution of the red planet. This will not only help us understand Earth better, but also possibly prevent catastrophic climate change. 

With innovative companies like ICON and the expertise of NASA, we could see humans on Mars in the next 10-20 years. Still, the path to Mars habitation isn’t easy. But, if we are lucky enough to get there, 3D printing will be the tech that helps us accomplish it.

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