NASA and Autodesk Join Hands for 3D Printing on MarsAugust 4, 2018
With multiple organizations attempting to send people on Mars , it seems inevitable that we’ll eventually see Earthlings attempting to colonize a new planet. But once they boldly go where no human has gone before, how will these space explorers construct a place to call home?
It does not make sense to carry all the construction equipment plus the raw material up there. How about manufacturing the materials and equipments right up there? That’s right NASA and Autodesk are trying to do exactly the same thing.
NASA’s Swamp Works lab is experimenting with 3D-printing habitable structures using a process called robotic extrusion, and a composite material made up of loose sediment (soil, dust, broken rock, etc.) and recycled plastic. The sediment, known as regolith, can be widely found on Earth, other planets, the moon, and even asteroids. The first artifact that NASA has printed using this approach is a Jersey barrier – one of the modular barricades, typically made of concrete or plastic, that you often see separating lanes of traffic near road construction zones. In order to withstand vehicle impact, Jersey barriers must be tough and durable – characteristics that are desirable for human dwellings as well. So far, the regolith/plastic composite has proven to be strong and dependable, in addition to being relatively lightweight.
Based on NASA specifications, Autodesk’s Advanced Consulting team designed the barrier using tools such as Fusion 360 and PowerMill to comply with structural as well as robotic extrusion requirements while achieving significant weight reduction. Autodesk also developed the software to control the industrial robot arm – fit with a specialized end effector designed by NASA – to enable free-form additive manufacturing without the need for outside support or scaffolding.
“Additive manufacturing technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we do construction here on Earth, too,” said Massimiliano Moruzzi of Autodesk’s computational science research group. “If we can repurpose plastic pollution and use readily available natural resources to robotically print houses on Mars, we can use the same approach to sustainably build streets, sidewalks, and even playgrounds here at home.”
Swamp Works and NASA estimate that they might be able to put a prototype structure on either Mars or the moon in about five years, with a full-scale launch in about 10 years–assuming they can get the funding. But figuring out how to construct extraterrestrial architecture is only half the battle. As the lab works on its own prototypes, it’s also soliciting ideas through a three-phase design competition. Just last week, the team announced the five finalists for the third stage of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, through which teams of engineers proposed designs that could feasibly be 3D printed using local materials. All of this research also has implications on Earth. NASA has already partnered with the U.S. Army to experiment with using polymers from trash combined with local rock to create building material. For Autodesk, refining its software to suit NASA’s specifications has other benefits: The company hopes to use a material made of recycled PET bottles and regolith in industrial construction–and even home construction.