I know this sounds like a 3d printing question, but it is more space oriented so bear with me.

My reasoning for this post is that the Martian soil is comprised mainly of iron oxide, which gives it its famous rusty reddish color, and is abundant nearly everywhere you go on the surface of Mars.

I was wondering, would it be possible to use Martian soil as material for a 3d metal printer?

A selective laser sintering machine using a laser to machine parts out of iron oxide doesn't seem very farfetched to me. Selective laser melting could also be used. Furthermore if even more fine machining is necessary laser polishing and/or laser engraving could be used.

Considering a nuclear reactor might be sent to Mars before any astronauts even leave the ground they would have a nearly limitless and powerful source of electricity waiting for them on Mars, thus allowing for arbitrarily powerful lasers to be implemented. A strong enough laser would probably do what a blast furnace does to iron oxide on Earth nearly instantly, burning off any undesired materials in the process.

Modules and other devices built out of interchangeable parts would allow for these things to be made on Mars, for either building, repairing, or upgrading critical systems.

The module containing the 3d selective laser sintering/melting printer would probably be very light, and since certain parts could be machined on Mars they wouldn't have to take those parts from Earth, reducing launch loads considerably (so long as the mass that they save is less than that of the 3d selective laser sintering/melting printing module).

So, possible?

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    $\begingroup$ slightly related (same planet, different stack exchange site) How does this Martian habitat 3D printer built for NASA work? $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 14 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ It wouldn't work as a blast furnace as such furnace needs a lot of oxygen to work and does create not pure iron but rather iron and slag (all the undesired materials) and with "simple" slm/sls printer I don't see anyway to remove the slag. Nevertheless you might not care about if you want to use the procedure for creating a foundation or walls but it wouldn't be nice for proper precision equipment. $\endgroup$ – GittingGud May 14 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Martian soil is not mostly iron oxide, it's maybe 2%, see this previous question. space.stackexchange.com/questions/10785/…. So are you asking if raw martian soil could be used in a 3d printer, or whether iron oxide could be once it is extracted? $\endgroup$ – GdD May 14 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ Magnets could be used to separate the iron oxide from the Martian soil. Perhaps just iron oxide alone is a suitable material for SLS/SLM? $\endgroup$ – Steve Mucci May 14 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Have you read Doctorow's The Man Who Sold the Moon? $\endgroup$ – Peter A. Schneider May 14 at 13:11

Firstly Martian soil is less than 1 in 40 FeO. While still abundant its along way off being processed and ready for such proposals. However with enough power and infrastructure: there is no reason, that I can think of, not to be able to extract building materials in-situ which includes iron from the soil.

I suspect early equipment will be needed, and needed to adhere to pretty strict requirements, so I suspect sending things directly (not the machines to process the raw material and make those things) will be the norm as is least-unknown/safest route. But it would be interesting to see how it plays out!


In short, yes blasting a powerful enough laser at the Martian regolith would have a similar effect to sands here on Earth, it would cause melting and a solid object would form. However in order to be useful as a printed metal part you would have to first refine or at least filter the impurities from the raw material to get consistent, predictable properties from your final product.

Overall it would be more akin to this solar powered sand to glass printer than a blast furnace or SLS 3D printer.


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