3D printer on moon or Mars could make tools from local rocks

Stuck on the moon without a hammer? Research suggests you may one day be able to print one from moon dust.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
No blue cheese: Manufacturing with moon rocks is feasible, researchers have shown. Tim Hornyak/CNET

NASA is already experimenting with 3D-printing components for rockets to Mars, but the fun doesn't have to stop at liftoff.

Researchers at Washington State University and NASA are suggesting that rocks on the moon or Mars could be used to print useful objects like tools or replacement parts.

A study published in the latest issue of Rapid Prototyping Journal describes an additive manufacturing process called "laser engineered net shaping" (LENS).

The laser-assisted technique can be used to create metal parts from computer-aided design (CAD) files. The study marks its first use with simulated lunar material.

Along with their collaborators, WSU's Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, a husband and wife research team in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, experimented with 10 pounds of simulated lunar regolith provided by NASA. They managed to create structures from the regolith that didn't exhibit any visible cracks, according to the study.

"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," Bandyopadhyay said in a release.

Manufacturing parts or tools locally for construction or repairs could dramatically reduce the cost of missions to Mars or the moon, while additives from Earth could be used to strengthen regolith products.

The team plans to show how the material can be used to perform remote repairs. It will also try to create parts using simulated Martian soil.

"It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we'll hear about it in the next few years," Bandyopadhyay said in the release.

"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," he added.

Good thing the moon isn't really made of cheese. Would Gruyere make a good wrench?