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NASA is Building Educational Simulation of a Martian Colony With the Help of 3D Printing

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Texas-based company ICON is making an experimental “Martian” building using a proprietary constructional 3D printer. The Mars Dune Alpha project implies refining usage of 3D printing technologies for future Martian buildings with the help of available materials. The project also covers researching the habitability of such buildings.

The first task is to build a habitat with an area of around 1722 square feet (160 square meters). The building will play a role in the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) experiment in which a team of ‘colonists’ will live and work under the conditions that are as close as possible to Martian ones. It will start in the fall 2022 and will take 12 months. NASA is planning to conduct three experiments such as this one to research how long-term space expeditions affect physical and mental health of the astronauts, as well as their work efficiency. The experiments will also include equipment tests, for example the storage and cooking systems.

The Vulcan II 3D printer is used for building. It’s developed by ICON. The company is often mentioned in the news related to construction 3D printing: from building affordable houses in Mexico and Austin to working with the US Marine Corps on experimental 3D printed military structures. The ‘Martian’ habitat is designed by an architectural bureau BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, it is under construction in one of the hangars of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

NASA is considering the possibility of using 3D printing for building habitats on Mars in the long-term perspective. Additive manufacturing simplifies the logistics of the process, as well as makes it cheaper: it’s easier to get relatively compact additive equipment from Earth to Mars and use Martian soil as a material than to deliver large amount of construction materials. 

The size of the current structures built for the Martian colony is 158-square-metre (1700 square feet). In terms of scale, construction 3D printers will substantially surpass FDM 3D printing. To put it into perspective, the world’s largest industrial FDM 3D printer has a 100-foot bed, and the largest prosumer 3D printers can only reach up to 1.8 meters at the moment.

This technology is also under research: additional equipment and materials for 3D printing using regolith simulant in microgravity was sent to the ISS.

The layout of a Martian habitat consists of four bedrooms at one side of the building. The other side will include service space, including an infirmary. The central part will consist of common rooms and a hydroponic garden.

ICON also got financed by NASA to start the Olympus project that covers research and testing works aimed to produce constructional additive manufacturing equipment to support Moon and Mars exploration.

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