3D Printing in Moon Exploration

Alex Ellery from Carleton University in Ottawa and his team are working on a self-replicating 3D printer able to create all the material needed for the exploration of the moon.

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Are you ready for the next big innovation in 3D printing? If so, please fasten your seatbelt and let us take you to the moon and back.

Self-Replicating 3D Printer Could Make It Happen

From printed couture to printed cutlery and food we have read and heard a lot about 3D printing – some of it hard to believe, some not. But if you were told that someone was able to print a lunar-base from material found on the moon wouldn’t that be too much Sci-fi to your ears? In the mind of Alex Ellery, this scenario is far from any Star Wars-level as he and his team are working to – someday – make it happen.

According to Ellery who works at Carleton University in Ottawa, the first thing needed to 3D print in space would be a self-replicating 3D printer. It could be taken to the moon to copy thousands of replicates from lunar material. This army of 3D printers would then create all the material needed for humans to explore the moon. No wonder that he and his team are focussing their efforts on the development of a 3D printer that could re-create itself from lunar material.

“I believe that self-replicating machines will be transformative for moon-exploration because it effectively bypasses launch costs,”

Ellery says. And with their efforts they have already exceeded the status quo of what printers are able to do.

Printing Motors and Electronics Are Weak Points

Although some commercially available 3D printers can reprint some of their own parts – those out of plastics – none of them can produce motors and electronics. These are installed separately. Yet, as to Ellery, he and his team are close to 3D-print a fully functioning electric motor from material similar to that on the moon.

“Our starting point is the RepRap 3D printer, which can print many of its own plastic parts,”

Ellery states.

“In order to fully self-replicate itself, it needs to print its metal bars, its electric motors, its electronics and software, and self-assemble.”

At the moment, the researchers are concentrating on recreating two parts of the motor – the stator and the rotor – and printing them from a mixture of plastic material and iron filings.

“We need to maximize magnetic threading through the rotor, which requires more iron, but minimize eddy currents in the stator, which requires less iron,” Ellery says. “So we have been varying the amount of iron in the plastic matrix.”

 

And a similar mixture could be extracted from the lunar regolith.

About Visions and Reality

The above provides a brief overview of what is to come. As a next step towards a fully 3D-printed motor, for example, the motor’s wire coils are planned to be replaced with aluminium coils printed onto a polylactic acid plastic substrate. In total, Ellery assumes it to take another few months until they will be able to present the first printed motor.

When it comes to the electronics – and thus to the self-replicating machine – a lot more work is waiting down the road. But yet, Ellery keeps his eyes on the price:

“Once motors and electronic controllers can be 3D-printed, we can print any kind of robot, including a 3D printer, as well as milling machines, drills, lathes, excavating machines and so on. […] If you have a robotic self-replicating machine, you can grow an enormous manufacturing infrastructure on the moon robotically.”

In your opinion, can 3D printing really be a key technology to use in space? Leave us your comments in the section on the right.

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