back to article The answer to 3D printing equipment on Mars might lie in the Red Planet's dust

Scientists claim they have fed a strong titanium alloy and a sprinkling of simulated Martian regolith into a 3D printer to study how future astronauts may one day be able to print tools and rocket parts in space. Sending anything to space is expensive. It cost NASA about $54,000 per kilogram just to get something into Earth's …

  1. Mike 137 Silver badge

    So much for commercial space flight

    "It cost NASA about $54,000 per kilogram just to get something into Earth's orbit using space shuttles [...] while SpaceX lists prices starting at $1.2 million to launch a 200kg payload."

    The same order of cost is probable for returning anything from space, so I seriously doubt the economics of ventures such as using moon matter as a resource or asteroid mining (which, however, have been proposed). Space exploration is very valuable as an extension of science, but other than for simple tasks such as the provision of Earth orbital satellites I can't see how it has a commercial future.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: So much for commercial space flight

      Part of the objective of mining resources in space is so that you don't need to lift the resources out of the gravity well.

      Every litre of water you can get from regolith or an asteroid is a litre of water already in space.

      Plenty of solar energy in space to refine metals or bake ceramics which would be incredibly useful for long term habitation in space.

      Mining asteroids for heavy metals like platinum would be marginally viable if they can use other material from the asteroid for uses in space.

      Dropping stuff from space is a lot less expensive than getting stuff into space, if there's no live cargo all that's needed is to make sure the cargo container is not going too fast, a bit of ablative shielding (you could probably use the unwanted bits of asteroid for that) and a few parachutes and some guidance control both of which could probably be reused.

      I'd agree space mining is not commercially viable now but give it a few years and that will change, research like this will speed that day along.

    2. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: So much for commercial space flight

      > The same order of cost is probable for returning anything from space

      Why would you think that? It's a lot easier to drop something than to lift it. Especially if it's not squishy. I mean, astronauts leave in rockets and return in capsules. And that's a type of cargo that needs to stay at relatively low G forces and temperatures for the entire duration of the trip, and the trip can't be too long either.

      For raw minerals, you could pretty much just drop them in an ocean strapped to a balloon so they don't sink, and just enough rocket and parachute to keep them in one piece. I'm not a rocket scientist, but that sounds like at least a couple orders of magnitude cheaper than liftoff.

      Okay, if your mining is done on the Moon or on Mars, then you have to first lift the stuff out of there, but most of the scenarios where you import low-value, high-mass raw goods from space should be looking at asteroids. No launch cost there.

      1. Tom 38

        Re: So much for commercial space flight

        There's always a launch cost if you think about it, you have to accelerate in to a path to get you back to Earth, and then slow down when you get there.

        1. Francis Boyle

          Re: So much for commercial space flight

          "you have to accelerate in to a path to get you back to Earth"

          Which you can do with a reusable ion-drive tug.

          "and then slow down when you get there."

          Tell that to the Apollo astronauts.

      2. Binraider Silver badge

        Re: So much for commercial space flight

        Indeed. Delta-V to bring something in from GTO is negligible. Putting enough control and protection on it is slightly more challenging without causing a Tsunami by dumping large meteors of materials into the ocean for collection.

        Going up from Earth is vicious on delta V. From the Moon or Mars; assuming synthetic fuels can be made there in quantity; the Delta-V is not too significant.

        An interesting observation made in the board game High Frontier - the main map is a "delta-V" map of transfers from object to object in the solar system. Requirements for moon and Mars operations are surprisingly VERY similar. NASA had a mission for Apollo hardware in the works for a manned Venus flyby that would have fit the Saturn V capability.

        1. that one in the corner Silver badge

          Re: So much for commercial space flight

          The delta-v from Earth to most places in the Solar System are similar, because of the effort to leave our gravity well in the first place. The killer difference between a Lunar trip and one to Venus is the time required, which translates into life support mass for a manned mission.

          Haven't looked into the mission to Venus you mention, but can't help thinking that, in order to get sufficient per-man life support onto a Saturn V they'd be looking at reducing the crew complement. Say, to one.

          And they before they'd invented the e-reader or MP3 player - it'd be a real-life case of 12 records (ok, tape cassettes) and one book (alongside Shakespeare and the Bible).

    3. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: So much for commercial space flight

      Getting back is relatively easy - you can aerobrake to lose most of the velocity.

      Shuttle: $54k/kg

      Falcon9: $6k/kg

      Starship: Target: $10/kg (not 10k, 10)

      I suspect Musk's aim of $10/kg is somewhat optimistic, but another factor of ten reduction is plausible.

      So shuttle cargo better be worth it's weight in gold (currently $54,784)

      Falcon 9 cargo is valued about as titanium (currently $5k ish?, hard to find)

      Starship might be worth as much as silver (currently $589) or a little bit more than copper ($7)

      1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: Apples / Oranges

        The correct price to orbit for the space shuttle is huge: get one from a museum, refurbish, $145M x 3 for new engines, $1B for a new mobile launch platform, ...

        Falcon 9 prices are "competitive". That $6k/kg is either cheap and fast ride share with Starlinks - to an orbit you probably do not want or ride share to sun synchronous orbit (a popular choice for small sats) available about 3 times per year. The price is less than RocketLab or Virgin Orbit, but those two will take you to an orbit of your choice.

        The Starship cost assumes the Starship is loaded to capacity. Do the same with a Falcon 9 and you get a price of $300/kg to LEO. Time waiting for a launch is a bit tricky: 5 Starships per year from Texas + 24/year from Florida - first launch real soon now (Elon Time). SpaceX has Falcon licenses totalling 100/year and may well reach that limit next year. The Falcon price is competitive with other medium lift rockets. The Starship figure is a theoretical cost to SpaceX. Prices quoted so far have been competitive with launching the same mass with a different provider.

        For asteroid mining for use in space then you have to guess the mining cost and compare to cost on Earth + launch. For use on Earth then you have to guess the mass of platinum/irridium/... returned which could be very different from the mass of mining equipment launched. That launch cost per kilo is going to go up as maximum payload mass plummets for rides to the asteroid belt. Getting back your R&D costs will take time as the demand for the really precious metals is only a few tons per year.

        So far I have only heard of one asteroid mining venture that takes the limited market size into account in their business plan.

  2. TVU Silver badge

    "We need to capture Solar energy to run these systems"

    Perhaps in the longer term but nuclear power and plutonium nuclear batteries (of the type in Curiosity and Perseverance) will probably be needed in the short term as well.

    1. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Perseverance generated 110W at time of launch from its RTG; enough to drive a plastic filament 3D printer but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that heating regolith and titanium into a composite takes a bit more juice.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The composite material is strong enough to withstand high temperatures,"

    Er, not quite, there are plenty of materials that are strong *until* they have their temperature raised. Perhaps the author meant "The composite material remains strong at high temperatures".

    Also, is that tensile strength (important for building pressurised structures), shear strength (useful in load bearing beams) or compressive strength (Might be useful if you want to build a skyscraper on mars). Given it seems to be some variation on a ceramic, it's probably *not* tensile strength. Also, it's useful to know the tensile and compressive fatigue strengths if you are building a structure...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Almost certainly tensile strength, I doubt they're printing hammers :-/. Ceramic, granite, carbon fiber, etc. is already used for this in 3D printing (with fancy ruby/diamond tipped nozzles).

      I don't see how gravity will be a problem for long as layer height is rarely bigger than 3mm and with a hefty extrusion width that can be smooshed down easily. I'd bet a few spools of material that my little residential printer with 1.75mm filament could print up to ~1.25mm layer height without gravity.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        It's not the gravity when printing, it's the gravity acting on a final structure that matters (or body forces from spacecraft accelerations)

        If you're building a home on mars, it's got to withstand mars' gravity (less than earth) but also has to hold almost a bar of pressure.

        A lack of gravity when printing will make bridging very easy, but all other layers are just squished against the previous layer, so gravity doesn't come in to 3d printing using a filament based approach. It should be pointed out that laser sintering of metal powders or similar martian dust based materials will require a centrifuge to work in zero G.

  4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    The elephant in the air lock…

    …is the fuel for the rockets. The weight of this dwarves any payload, especially for missions that are supposed to return.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: The elephant in the air lock…

      Curse the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.

      Most of the fuel is there to lift the rest of the fuel which in turn is there to lift some more fuel and so on and so on.

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: The elephant in the air lock…

        It's t̶u̶r̶t̶l̶e̶s̶ rocket fuel all the way d̶o̶w̶n̶ up

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Forget cost, look at weight

    As the lede says, they're only using a sprinkling of simulated Martian regolith, 10% according to the article.

    90% titanium plus 10% so you'd save 10% of launch weight. But an earth based industrial printer like the Objet350 weighs about 275 kg and Mars based printers would probably weigh more. So you'd have to be printing a hell of a lot of parts before you'd actually save weight with Mars based printing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Forget cost, look at weight

      Why would anyone send such a printer? That's a multi-material, single bed, single head printer. The support contract on it looks good but, I'm not sure how long it takes their technicians to get to Mars :-/. Whoever on Mars is running this is going to be more than qualified to DIY and repair it so it makes more sense to send dozens of smaller printers.

  6. Snowy Silver badge

    Using Martian regolith

    With none of the toxic parts.

  7. Potemkine! Silver badge
  8. Chasola

    "Sending anything to space is expensive. It cost NASA about $54,000 per kilogram just to get something into Earth's orbit using space shuttles,"

    Have they brought the Space Shuttle back?

    News to me.

  9. mdava

    Cory Doctorow's short story, The Man who Sold the Moon, is so like this that I wonder if the scientists read it and got the inspiration from it!?

  10. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

    Can't 3D Print

    "We're on Mars, but our 3D printer won't print! The printer display reads, 'Error 53'!"

    "The manual says ... 'Error 53 means your Hewlett-Packard 3D printer cartridge has expired. Please contact your authorized HPE dealer to purchase a replacement cartridge '."

  11. Stevie


    So we now need to add “enough titanium powder to print what we need - 5%” to the tool list.

    Oh, and the printer, of course.

  12. carolinahomes

    A typo surely

    "Composites made with just five percent fake regolith were strong, but at 100 percent the material cracked easily."

    Anything 100% ceramic cracks easily, doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

    1. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: A typo surely

      Something made out of 100% Mars is going to crack easily?

      So, soft landings only or we'll have another Valles Marineris on our hands.

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