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Moon colony with rover
A moon colony – via NASA/Dennis Davidson

NASA is testing a 3D moon dust printer on the International Space Station

Designed to build landing pads, roads, and even homes, it could help humans become an interplanetary species

When a spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS) this week, it was carrying with it some very important earthly cargo – a 3D printer that uses moon dust to make solid materials.

The Cygnus spacecraft, developed by US aerospace company Northrop Grumman, delivered the printing system which is designed to revolutionise future missions to the moon by enabling the creation of equipment on the celestial body itself, rather than having to continually fly out heavy, and very expensive, loads.

Research into the use of moon dust – or regolith as it is known scientifically – as a construction material for 3D printing has been ongoing for many years, and now scientists are about to test its ability to produce under zero-gravity conditions onboard the ISS.

As real samples are very precious and rare, the printer will use a human-made “moon stimulant”, a compound similar enough in make-up to lunar regolith to warrant testing. Redwire, the company behind the printer, says that the device can be used to create small fixtures and fittings, but added that it could potentially stretch to printing larger parts like landing pads, roads, or even habitats on the lunar surface.

NASA has made no secret of its ambitions for the technology, suggesting it could even be used to streamline the process of humans becoming an interplanetary species. The space agency has said it intends to look further into the possibility of 3D printing settlements on Mars. 

If you can see yourself at the frontier of space-travel, why not sign up to this programme that invites you to spend a year in a Mars simulator.