New 3D printing process heading for use in outer space?

3D Printing for outer space
3D Printing for outer space

It seems that developments within the added manufacturing industry follow one another up increasingly quickly at present as new products are established and new companies emerge. However, a recent process, which stands out, if for nothing else than for its novelty, is that of advanced selective separation sintering. Selective separation sintering is a new 3D printing process that has been developed by Behrokh Khoshnevis. The development enables the construction of physical structures in space, which proves that additive manufacturing is no longer earth bound. It has recently won the first place in the NASA In-Situ Materials Challenge. The NASA competition rules were so drawn up that competitors should use materials found on the Moon and Mars to develop a cement-like building material without water in a zero-gravity environment. The material itself being a regolith or crushed basalt rock.

Khoshnevis is no newcomer to NASA’s competitions having won them twice already. He also has an ideal background to work on the challenge being Dean’s Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering and Astronautics Engineering, and the Director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT). Together with his  team he went about developing a robotic fabrication process that uses high-melting-point ceramics such as magnesium oxide and ordinary regolith, which is commonly known as  planetary soil, to produce tiles that could withstand the heat and pressure of the exhaust plume of landing spacecraft. Magnesium oxide, incidentally, is found commonly present on the Moon and Mars.

Using a mix of sulfur and regolith through contour crafting, his team showed that they would be able to build structures such as walls and hangers on the Moon and Mars, in a NASA Innovative Advanced Concept research project. What does this mean for the future of the space industry? Well, Khoshnevis thinks that his team’s innovation work could reduce the need for sending cargo from earth and as such could save agencies and organizations such as NASA considerable funds on their space exploratory developments. He further believes that the selective separation sintering process that his team have produced will also provide certain advantages in the form of speed and independence from expensive laser and electron beam technologies (and perhaps greater accuracy than these methods).