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Additive manufacturing is currently being proposed as a way to greatly decrease the cost of establishing a permanent (robotic or human) presence on the Moon or Mars by sending only 3D printers to establish a "settlement" (at least basic shelters). This would prevent having to send raw materials and/or expensive/bulky items out of the Earth gravitational field.

Is the current 3D printing technology good enough to achieve this goal? If not, what needs to be overcome? I would think protecting the printer from dust storms would be the most difficult task...

This could be seen as the first step towards one of the holy grail of space exploration, the Von Neumann probe.

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  • $\begingroup$ This question's answer by Jack B Nimble is pretty close to a good answer for this. space.stackexchange.com/questions/84/… $\endgroup$ – John Riselvato Jul 17 '13 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK, most 3D printing only works with carbon polymers, which we would have to get from Earth anyway. It's certainly possible to build things in the normal way, but 3D printing might be the wrong direction to look. $\endgroup$ – Gwen Jul 17 '13 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ KISScaltech youtube channel has new talks about additative manufacturing using regolith and other related topics. Watch the videos posted at the end of July or search for names like Wilcox, Metzger, Howe, Mueller. It is certainly being seriously investigated. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Sep 2 '15 at 6:53
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly relevant: space.stackexchange.com/questions/19219/… $\endgroup$ – Chris B. Behrens Jan 12 '17 at 15:04
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Italian inventor and Monolite founder Enrico Dini believes it is and is together with UK based Foster + Partners working on a prototype massive D-Shape 3D printer that would use Lunar regolith as source material. They are testing 3D printing techniques using simulated regolith to which they're adding magnesium oxide. End results are fascinating:

            enter image description here

                  Example 3D printed structure using simulated Lunar regolith. Source: DVICE, Credit: Foster + Partners

Apparently, Dini and Foster + Partners are in talks with ESA (European Space Agency) to create one of these D-Shape printers that would use Moon dust to fabricate an entire lunar base. So yes, seems there is a way.

Suggested further reading:

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Definitely not 3D printing.

You should look for the mirror side of 3D manufacturing: substractive methods like CNC milling. Take a solid lunar rock, carve it into any arbitrary shape you desire, construct whatever you wish from carved components, add minuscule amounts of organic sealant brought from Earth. Use solar furnace to melt metal, cast it in CNC-carved rock die into rough shape with surplus metal, finish off to precise shape using a multi-axis CNC mill, weld using solar-powered electric welder (vacuum makes for a very pleasant environment for welding, no oxidation problems.)

3D printing materials are fickle and hard to obtain. Most likely once rudimentary base is established, and enough power produced to create glass (or artificial lighting, if glass covers are not viable) to grow plants, stuff like corn-based plastic could become a thing. Until then, plastic, which is pretty much essential for 3D printing is a luxury; meanwhile metal and stone which is the daily bread of milling, is a commodity.

I believe with enough hard work, a 3D printer that utilizes metal or glass as its work material could be doable, but I'm afraid the technological problems would make it prohibitively complex and likely fault-prone.

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  • $\begingroup$ I do not follow 3D printing technology, but I was under the impression that metals can be used by laser fusing. It might be practical to use lunar dust as a material in a similar fashion. Subtractive methods would probably be more energy efficient and faster, but they would seem to require greater infrastructure (e.g., finding and mining large chunks of material with consistent properties). Just guessing. $\endgroup$ – Paul A. Clayton Jul 17 '13 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ New news on 3D printing metal, & an opportunity to update this answer bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24528306 $\endgroup$ – James Jenkins Oct 15 '13 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ While some of the content in your answer would still be good, I think your answer is no longer accurate as a whole considering the posts by TildalWave and James Jenkins. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Mar 5 '14 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ 3D printers that use metal (both SLS and selective laser melting) are common and used in production of rocket components. Glass can also be printed these days. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Sep 29 '15 at 9:53
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"Made In Space" is the company that built the 3D printer currently on board the ISS. I recently heard a talk from their co-founder at a local commercial spaceflight conference, and he mentioned that they were researching and testing how to do exactly that (though still in the ground test phase). Here's a short video that confirms this:

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I cannot respond to other responses, otherwise I would.... I just want to add to the previous posts.

There are actually quite a few papers written on the subject. ASCE hosts an annual Earth and Space conference. The paper I am referring to is from 2012 (although I can't find it at the moment). 3d printing is indeed considered a viable suggestion for manufacturing in space, however, it is not considered viable for settlement construction. The main reason for this is radiation. Unfortunately, there are currently only a few ways to avoid the extreme radiation of a settlement on other celestial bodies. Polametric shielding is one answer, while another is the submersion (or burying) of the colony.

The machines themselves would only have to worry about power and the solar wind (the charged particles cause problems in the systems).

Simply having a settlement on the Moon or Mars, on the surface and for permanent or extended residence, would subject the inhabitants to extraordinary doses of radiation. The best solution so far is to dig. The technology behind 3d manufacturing can definitely build settlements, but they still need to overcome radiation issues for the inhabitants.

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