3D printing isn’t just for futuristic toys or creating a superhero action figure of yourself. Try technology that might someday make it possible for Earthlings to colonize Mars.
NASA just went there. Its 3D-printed Habitat Challenge is offering galactic amounts of money to the group that can print the most optimal prototype of a Mars habitat. Contestants are challenged to develop unprecedented 3D printing technology that will push the limits of survival tech by using mandatory local (as in Martian) materials and optional recyclable substances to build a viable habitat. Recycling goes beyond ecological concerns when it comes to colonizing an alien planet. Unless we figure out how to beam them onto a transport deck, it will be exorbitantly expensive to fly in reinforcements from Earth.
With the design phase over, this competition has now blasted off to the structural phase of developing a space haven that can protect humans from the Red Planet’s poisonous and dangerously thin atmosphere. The Level 1 Compression Test of Phase 2: Structural Member Competition was recently completed. Teams developed 3-D printable substances from materials indigenous to the Red Planet, then printed a truncated cone and cylinder which were then tested by NASA judges. The thought of touching even fragments of what could someday be a Mars habitat is almost surreal.
“Seeing tangible, 3D-printed objects for this phase makes the goals of this challenge more conceivable than ever," said Centennial Challenges program manager Monsi Roman.
This subset of Phase 2 went to Foster + Partners Branch Technology of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which won the most points to equal nearly $86K, while the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, came in at a distant second with enough points for about $14K. Other participating teams were Bubble Base of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Pennsylvania State University, CTL Group Mars of Skokie, Illinois, ROBOCON of Singapore and Moon X Construction of Seoul, South Korea.
Even as we dream of someday becoming an interplanetary species, 3D printing technology isn’t exclusively for ventures outside Earth’s atmosphere. The brains behind these almost sci-fi developments are already fast-forwarding to when we will be able to use them on our own planet. Imagine being able to click and print shelters that will hold up in areas where sturdy construction materials prove elusive. Taking this technology for a test-drive on Earth will also make NASA (and the rest of us) more secure about sending it off to space in the future.
"This is the first step toward building an entire habitat structure,” said Roman. “and the potential to use this technology to aid human exploration to new worlds is thrilling."