NASA's Curiosity rover has been thrilling us all with the stunning pictures it's sent back of the red planet. Whilst we gaze in wonder at the panoramic views of the desolate but oddly familiar Martian landscape, NASA is already well into the testing stage of its next several missions to Mars. The ultimate goal, of course, is to send a manned mission to the fourth planet, a mission which will require a very different kind of rover. Such a machine has already been built and tested, thanks in part to our old friend, the 3D printer.
The rover is a self-contained module capable of carrying two astronauts, who will be able to live in relative comfort as they explore the Martian surface. "They basically live in this module — in this rover. It's like your own personal SUV in space," says NASA test engineer Chris Chapman. (Stratasys.com)
In a move which combines two of our favourite things – space exploration and 3D printing – 70 of the rover's components have been manufactured using a 3D printer. The requirement for light and durable components which could be produced quickly meant that the Stratasys FDM was the only 3D printer up to the task. The FDM uses tough thermoplastics such as polycarbonate and PCS-ABS (Polycarbonate-Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene); materials capable of withstanding the rigours of a launch and exploring the Martian surface without adding too much weight.
The ability to produce plastic components quickly and cheaply meant that the FDM was also used for prototyping a range of other parts during the early design and development stages. This allowed NASA to test and modify the designs before full production, saving valuable time and resources during the manufacturing process.
It seems that the futures of 3D printing and space exploration are inextricably linked as The Daily Mail reported in July that NASA was testing a 3D printer in low gravity conditions. It has also been widely reported that NASA is planning to install a 3D printer on board the International Space Station by 2014 (Geek.com). The aim is for astronauts to manufacture replacement parts in space, elimating the need for risky and expensive re-supply missions. As future missions reach further into space for longer, astronauts will need to become more self-sufficient and 3D printers will, no doubt, be increasingly valuable tools in these endeavours.
NASA's video shows the rovers being tested and highlights the components that were produced using the Stratasys FDM: