cientists are developing a new 3D printer that can create copies of itself from lunar material, an advance that could enable humans to build an outpost on the Moon in future. The 3D printer could be delivered to the Moon, where it would make its copies from surrounding lunar material. Once there are enough 3D printers, the self-replicating factory would focus on building all other equipment and infrastructure needed for human exploration.
The machine could build habitats for astronauts before they arrive at a deep-space location. It could also be used to cheaply enable space-based solar power, in which satellites equipped with solar panels turn sunlight into energy, and send that energy down to Earth. Humans could also build space shields to protect the Earth against solar radiation, which could further combat the planet's warming trend, researchers said. Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK are close to being able to 3D-print a fully functioning electric motor from material similar to what can be sourced on the moon.
Although some existing 3D printers can reprint some of their own parts, none of those printers can produce motors and electronics, said Alex Ellery from Carleton University in Canada. "I believe that self-replicating machines will be transformative for space exploration because it effectively bypasses launch costs," Ellery told 'Space.com'. "Our starting point is the RepRap 3D printer, which can print many of its own plastic parts," Ellery said. Researchers said that elements needed for printing could be extracted from the lunar regolith.
The lunar 3D-printer, fitted with a robotic arm, would scoop up the regolith and heat it to about 900 degrees Celsius using a so-frensel lens to focus sunlight into a beam. The process would first remove volatile gases from the lunar soil. Subsequently, a component called ilmenite would be separated and used for extraction of iron, Ellery said.