NASA promoting development of 3D-printing of outer space habitats from recyclable materials

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its partners are holding a $2.5 million competition to build a 3-D printed habitat for deep space exploration, including the agency’s journey to Mars. The multi-phase challenge is designed to advance the construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond. One key aspect of the project is to adopt recycled material such as discarded plastic packaging as raw materials.

Members of the Penn State Den@Mars team, from University Park, Pa., with their completed 3D-printed dome structure on Aug. 25, 2017, at the Caterpillar Inc. Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois The team won second place and $150,000 in NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 3 competition.

Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The Foster + Partners | Branch Technology team from Chattanooga, Tennessee, with their 3D-printed dome structure after it was strength tested Aug. 26, 2017, at Caterpillar Inc.'s Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The team won first place and $250,000 at Phase 2: Level 3 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge.

Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The challenge comprises three phases: Phase 1, the Design Competition, was completed in 2015. Phase 2, the Structural Member Competition, has three sub-competitions, carries a $1.1 million prize purse and focuses on the material technologies needed to create structural components. The Phase 3 On-Site Habitat Competition has a $1.5 million prize purse, and will focus on automated 3D print systems to autonomously construct a complete habitat.

The recently completed second phase of the 3D-printing competition awarded a total of $400,000 to the top teams, headed by a top prize of $250,000 to Team Foster + Partners | Branch Technology of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Pennsylvania State University of University Park received second place, and a reward of $150,000. Challenge activities were held Aug. 23-26 at Caterpillar’s Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Edwards, Illinois. Teams were presented a check at the awards ceremony on Aug. 26 by Jim Reuter, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“The advancement and innovation in additive construction that we’ve seen from these teams is inspiring,” said Reuter. “Meeting the technology goals of this challenge proves that competition can push boundaries, and their work puts us that much closer to preparing the way for deep space exploration.”

Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, is NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge partner. Bradley University also partnered with sponsors Caterpillar, Bechtel and Brick & Mortar Ventures to run the competition.

“Being a part of this competition has been an extraordinary opportunity for Bradley University,” said Bradley University President, Gary Roberts. “Our students, faculty, staff and the Peoria community had a chance to see history in the making. We are a part of transforming technology and reshaping the way we think about construction. This was inspiring, and I am certain it changed the lives of many who experienced it.”

Teams were required to develop the fundamental 3-D printing technology necessary to produce a structurally sound habitat, including the printer itself and construction materials. Competitors then had to print beams, cylinders and domes that were analyzed and compressed to failure to determine scores and prize awards. The competition activities were open to the public, and many industry leaders and local school groups attended the event.

Earlier, NASA has awarded a total of $201,023 to teams of “citizen inventors” that reached the latest milestone of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, completing the Phase 2: Level 2 Beam Member competition. The teams worked to find ways to 3D-print habitation structures using recyclables and simulated Martian soil, a technology goal that could support deep space exploration and advance construction capabilities on Earth.

“Recyclable plastics were used in the top three scoring teams, indicating that a thermoplastic concrete material may be viable for 3-D printing habitats on Mars,” said Rob Meuller, senior technologist for advanced projects development at the Swamp Works laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a subject matter expert for the competition. “Thermoplastics, which are plastic polymers that become moldable when heated, could be obtained from discarded packaging material or even created on Mars using the carbon dioxide atmosphere and hydrogen from water found in the soil. Such concrete materials could also have applications on Earth while using discarded plastic trash.”

The goal of the challenge is to foster the development of technologies to manufacture a habitat using local indigenous materials with, or without, recyclable materials. The vision is that autonomous machines will someday be deployed in deep space destinations, including Mars, to construct shelters for human habitation. On Earth, these same capabilities could be used to produce affordable housing wherever it is needed or where access to conventional building materials and skills are limited.

 

A beam 3-D printed by team MoonX of South Korea, who won first place in the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 2 competition. For this level, teams had to 3-D print a structure for bend testing.

Photo:  MoonX

Second-place team Form Forge of Oregon State University, Corvallis, 3-D printed this beam for the challenge.

Photo: Form Forge

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