Engineers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have successfully melted lunar dust to print ceramic objects. The fabrication of material using extraterrestrial compounds under microgravity conditions certainly brings us one step closer to demonstrating the feasibility of space colonization.
Microgravity is another way of saying “less gravity than Earth” or more closely approximating other worlds – in this case the Moon and Mars. However the achievement could also prove relevant to orbital factories and those operating in deep space.
This was accomplished on board airbus’ ZERO-G parabolic flight aircraft and marks the worlds first ceramic manufacturing experiment under microgravity conditions. It is important to remember that artificial gravity costs energy to sustain. Since we are used to building under the force of gravity here on Earth, it takes innovation to create more energy efficiency industries that function outside of it.
However the upside is that the less energy we dedicate towards simulating Earths gravity the more energy can be re-appropriated for construction purposes inside these robotic space factories of the future, wherever they may be.
Since robots (or in this case automated 3D printers) don’t have to worry about skeletal decay from lack of gravity they could remain in micro-grav permanently if we develop the necessary technology for them to build out spacecraft or even habitats for colonization.
Furthermore NASAs recent decision to fund the design of an Ethereum based cryptocurrency framework for the automation of spacecraft using what they call “smart contracts” provides them with the necessary digital infrastructure to do so.
Since lunar soil and regolith (rock rubble) also contains titanium, aluminum, and iron the team tested casting metal objects with 3D printed ceramic molds. The hope being that we could eventually forge ceramic casts on the Moon or Mars which could be used to pour and dry molten metal for the creation of space habitats.
Although Lockheed Martin recently demonstrated the capability to 3D print large titanium domes for spacecraft, they have not yet accomplished this under microgravity conditions, so the creation of ceramic casts in low G is still a relevant achievement for the Chinese team.
Ceramic molds could also be printed under microgravity conditions and shifted to heavier artificial gravity for the pouring and drying phase of metallic assembly. That means we may be able to employ them in orbit for the manufacturing of space telescopes to begin with.
These proposed suborbital telescopes are pivotal to the emerging economy of asteroid mining. Since telescopes in space don’t have to worry about penetrating our thick atmosphere of cloud coverage and moisture they can more accurately identify valuable asteroids by their relatively unobscured spectral signature.
Asteroid mining is vital to the whole picture of space colonization as we can extract ice water from these space rocks to split it in to hydrogen and oxygen for fuel – creating a cheaper way to power spacecraft that doesn’t require launching fuel from the ground.
As far as the experiment is concerned the Melting of lunar dust for 3D printing was accomplished via Digital Light Processing. Whereby light is beamed through a liquid crystal display panel on to the surface of a photopolymer vat, heating up the lunar dust. The resulting liquefied dust is then pushed through a 3d printers nozzle on to a platform in the specified formation, where it then dries in to the intended ceramic material.
28 experiments were performed by the Chinese team under microgravity conditions.
- two experiments under lunar gravity
- and two under martian gravity on the european spacecraft
They’veproduced ten ceramic samples, and eight metal samples, including a screw and small wrench
The light and fine particles where difficult to control in microgravity conditions as they would float around easily. However the team was still successful as they had a more accurate smoother finish than standard filament materials.
Both experiments are aimed at developing technologies for producing instrument components on China’s future space station, or building large telescopes in space, or exploring the Moon and Mars,” said Gong.
CSA team members after completing the mission of manufacturing 3D printed ceramics in microgravity. Photo via Space Applications Engineering and Technology Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences.