For over 20 years, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have heavily relied on Earth-shipped materials for their scientific endeavors and daily necessities, with water being the sole exception, recycled from station wastewater. However, a shift is underway as scientists explore the potential of manufacturing supplies in space, fueled by the burgeoning commercial space industry and global interest in extended missions beyond the ISS.

The latest frontier in this quest involves studying the application of 3D printing in microgravity. Traditionally, 3D printing involves layering chosen materials like molten plastic, glass, or metal, a process heavily influenced by gravity. The investigation aims to unravel how 3D printing behaves in space, envisioning a future where astronauts can fabricate resources on-demand, ranging from space station components to nanosatellites, and even full-scale satellites using materials sourced from asteroids. This advancement could potentially lead to the 3D printing of habitats on the moon and other planets, thereby reducing the reliance on cargo resupply missions.

Jacob Cordonier of West Virginia University, the lead author of the study, emphasizes the significance of 3D printing in space, stating, “A spacecraft can’t carry infinite resources, so you have to maintain and recycle what you have, and 3D printing enables that. You can print only what you need, reducing waste.”

The study focuses on understanding the behavior of titanium dioxide foam, chosen for its suitability in 3D printing due to being lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and cost-effective. Titanium, abundant on the moon, holds promise for future lunar explorers to mine their 3D printing material directly from the lunar surface.

Konstantinos Sierros, a professor at West Virginia University and study co-author, envisions a future where lunar resources are harnessed, stating, “So the idea is you don’t have to transport equipment from here to space because we can mine those resources on the moon and print the equipment that’s necessary for a mission.”

The material’s ability to block UV light and potentially facilitate useful chemical reactions, such as air or water purification, adds to its allure for astronaut equipment. As researchers delve into the intricacies of 3D printing in microgravity, this study lays the foundation for the future of lunar manufacturing, pointing toward sustainable and efficient resource utilization in space exploration.

By Impact Lab