“If you build it, he will come”. If humans are destined to visit and colonize Mars, we’re going to need somewhere to live. But does that mean the first astronauts on Mars will also be construction workers? Will inter-planetary spacecraft be weighted down with concrete, steel, and glass construction materials?
NASA says not. To prove it, engineers and designers at NASA’s Swamp Works lab at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, have been accelerating research into overcoming the challenges of constructing buildings on other planets.
Instead of sending construction materials into space and humans into extreme environments, the lab has developed a solution: using 3D printing to construct habitats using natural resources found on the planet’s surface.
Robots and Rocks Hold the Key
Using new additive manufacturing technology combined with the latest advances in materials science, structures can be sustainably built using a combination of local materials (soil, broken rock, etc. which can be found on most planets), and light-weight recycled plastic. By mixing small amounts of plastic waste with lunar or Martian
regolith, like the dirt and rock found in desert climates on Earth, a cement-like structure is formed and composited into place with robotic precision, using a process called robotic extrusion – a process that can be repeated on even the most remote area of a planet.
The lab recently shared an example of how it’s using 3D printing, in partnership with Autodesk, to model its first large-scale construction prototype using Fusion 360 and PowerMill. It doesn’t look like a building, because it isn’t one. Instead, the engineering team designed and printed a Jersey barrier, typically seen separating lanes of traffic near road construction zones. Because these barriers must withstand vehicle impact, they need to be tough and durable – key characteristics of any planetary dwelling in
harsh atmospheric conditions like those found on Mars. Autodesk also developed the software that controls the industrial robot arm, which can 3D print anywhere without the need for outside support or scaffolding.
Working with Autodesk Consulting, NASA hopes to place a prototype structure on the moon or Mars in five years.
The tools and techniques used on the project also have the potential to revolutionize how we do projects here on Earth. Plastic pollution could be recycled to sustainable 3D printed streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, even habitable structures.
Army Corps of Engineers 3D Prints Buildings for the War Fighter
NASA is not alone in its 3D printing innovation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has pioneered the adoption of 3D printing, including the printing of a concrete barracks known as a B-Hut. The project was the result of a three-year Army Program
called the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures (ACES) and gives the U.S. Army the ability to use concrete sourced from readily available materials, reducing logistical requirements.
“ACES provides a capability to print custom designed expeditionary structures on-demand, in the field, using locally available materials. ACES will allow the Army to print buildings and other required infrastructure, such as barriers, culverts and obstacles on location,” said Dr. Michael Case, CERL ACES program manager.
In June, 2018, USACE was awarded a patent for its concrete mixture that can be used to rapidly 3D print buildings while being strong enough to withstand war zone environments.
Follow Swamp Works and U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center on Facebook as they share more about their innovative work on behalf of the U.S. government.