This week’s Meta Award goes to… the “asteroid mining” company Planetary Resources! In in a bid to prove just how useful alien material can be for us Earthlings, the team used a space rock to print—wait for it—a space rock. Whether or not you share the company’s vision of a future in which we mine the great wide forever, its latest development is an interesting look at its potential.
The model spacecraft was 3D-printed from four billion-year-old meteorite on the 3D Systems ProX DMP 320 direct metal printer. Direct metal printing isn’t 3D-printing as you know it. Rather than extruding plastic, the system relies on a powerful laser to melt metal powder into solid state. Material can then be added, layer by layer, to form the desired shape.
“The meteorite used for the print materials was sourced from the Campo Del Cielo impact near Argentina,” the team explains. “And is composed of iron, nickel and cobalt – similar materials to refinery grade steel.”
Creating the metal “ink” is a bit more complicated than just shaving a space rock into pieces, because those pieces have to be very, very small. Instead, the team uses 10,000°C plasma jets to instantly melt and atomize the meteorite. Yes, that means forming a super-heated metal plume. Safety first, and all that jazz.
“It condenses like rain,” CEO Chris Lewicki told Engadget. “But instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.” While the tech is still relatively crude, Lewicki and his team hope to eventually see it used on a large scale to reduce the cost of space travel.
“Instead of manufacturing something in an Earth factory and putting it on a rocket and shipping it to space, what if we put a 3D printer into space and everything we printed with it we got from space? There are billions and billions of tons of this material out there,” he said.
Starting life weightless in space could (in theory) increase the longevity of a piece of machinery, but it also presents a problem: how do you print material in zero-G and ensure it stays put? You can imagine how releasing a cloud of metal particles in a closed environment like the ISS would end badly. Still, these are the questions Lewicki hopes to answer in the coming years. “We’re in the iron age of building in space, quite literally,” he said.
IMAGES: Planetary Resources/GE Aviation