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NASA to Mars: A Solution for “You Can’t Take it With You”
Posted on March 10th, 2017 by Ken Klapproth in New Materials & Applications
Scientific discovery begins as more questions than answers. For NASA to achieve its goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030’s, one key question concerns making the Red Planet habitable. But if you’ve strained the payload feasibility of your biggest rocket, is there a way to not only create the dwellings required but their raw material as well?
Teaming up with the University of Central Florida (UCF), it appears there could be a plausible answer in transforming the Martian soil then 3D printing the structures. A Latin Post article describes how the space agency and UCF are studying a method of extracting metals from the soil using molten regolith electrolysis. Once refined, this metal could be the basis for 3D printing structural components, equipment, or tools.
Creating the metals on location and using a flexible additive manufacturing process means heavy and bulky materials would not have to be transported across the solar system along with any specialized tooling needed for their construction. Furthermore, maintenance of both the structures and tooling would be simplified by this “in-situ resource utilization”.
So, how exactly do you get metal from the native soil on the Red Planet? Turns out the science is not new and involves a form of electrolysis. According to Kevin Grossman, NASA intern and UCF graduate working on the project, “the regolith on any rocky planet is composed of metal oxides.” Heating the soil to nearly 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and applying an electric current separates metals and oxides. The following video from the team over at the Fuse School shows the process quite clearly.
Combining the latest developments in additive manufacturing with proven techniques of electrolysis, NASA and UCF researchers have a promising solution for at least one open question in realizing the Mars mission. It’s fascinating to think about how in-situ resource utilization might give our species the means to eventually take us beyond our solar system and galaxy. When it comes to space travel with heavy, bulky items, you still can’t take it with you – but now, why would you?
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