Mars. Since the earliest humans looked to the sky and noticed a strange red object in motion against the backdrop of the stars. Who would have thought that just 3,500 years after ancient observed the motions of Mars that humans would not just have robotic probes sending backing inspiring images of the red planet, but that our species would be making bold plans to inhabit it. NASA have just announced that 3D printing has provided a means to 'replicate' a meteorite found on Mars, printing an object on Earth from images gathered by our probe on an entirely different world.
On the 14th of this month Mars was exceptionally close to the Earth, the closest for six years, coincidence created exceptionally good timing, as the Earth's moon was rendered red during an unusual lunar eclipse. The relative surge in interest produced by this rare event also creates excellent timing for educational opportunities related to astronomy, space exploration and space technology. Indeed April 22nd - 24th saw the Explore Mars summit in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. where some 1500 delegates from politics, academia and business converged to discuss at the George Washington University.
Explore Mars was created to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades. To further that goal, Explore Mars conducts programs and technical challenges to stimulate the development and/or improvement of technologies that will make human Mars missions more efficient and feasible. In addition, to embed the idea of Mars as a habitable planet, Explore Mars challenges educators to use Mars in the classroom as a tool to teach standard STEM curricula. At the event, Charles Bolden, Administrator Of NASA said:
"If this species is to survive indefinitely we need to become a multi-planet species. We need to go to Mars, and Mars is a stepping-stone to other solar systems."
The U.S. has committed to extend it's support of the International Space Station until 2024. This primarily this provides further opportunity for experiments in micro-gravity and an orbiting outpost for private space companies - pertinent since the first docking by the craft of a private enterprise docking with the I.S.S. over Easter thanks to Space X. From there the aim is to capture an asteroid and deposit it in orbit around the Moon next year. The third stage of a development strategy to set the U.S., and mankind, on the path of interplanetary manned exploration is to development Mars capabilities to fulfil President Obama's challenge to that nation to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030.
Most of our readers will witness man walk on Mars in their lifetime. On 20 July 1969, 530 million people, about one in seven of the entire population of the Earth, watched Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the surface of the moon - particularly amazing as the broadcast was not shown in what was then the Soviet Bloc, and it was shown around 3 a.m. in Europe. The inspirational effect of mankind's journey into space, it's keystone events, and the unifying effect of stepping out together provide a bedrock for the future. And 3D printing has it's own key place to play in that journey. Alongside 3D printing propulsion rockets, moon bases, sending 3D printers to the International Space Station, 3D printed food for space travel, even terra-forming in a mind-blowing technology that may allow actual tree's, modified to geo-engineer Mars, to be 3D printed and more, now the first example of scanning on one planet to 3D print on another has been announced.
NASA have just 3D printed a meteorite that is on another planet here on Earth. In a first for mankind, made from precise measurements by a rover on Mars were taken and a version was 3D printed version on our home world. the 3D print potentially opens the door to the replication of objects and terrain elsewhere in space on the Earth.
For readers unfamiliar with the term, rocks in space fall into a number of categories: asteroids, meteors and comets, being the top level of category stratification. Think 'big rocks but not big enough to be spherical like a planet, or clear a path around itself of other object like a dwarf planet' for the former; 'small rocks' are meteoroids; 'icy rocks' are comets.
When meteoroids get caught up in a planet's or moon's atmosphere they become meteors: 'shooting stars.' Meteorites are the ones that make it to the surface. Just to complicate that by simplification, the comets and asteroids that may make it to a planet, dwarf planet or moon's surface are also called meteorites. Small rocks that hit big rocks.
Most meteorites break up when hitting the surface of Mars. The modern Martian atmosphere is not dense enough to create enough drag to slow them. That makes our specific meteorite in this story relatively special. The atmosphere's of planets are not uniform. The weather report will often tell you this but in different words. Our subject meteorite had specific entry point into the atmosphere which meant that it was slowed more than usual. It also had to have a very shallow flight path. Think skimming a stone on water. These factors slowed it enough to keep it from breaking apart upon landing.
NASA scientists based the design of the plastic meteorite on detailed measurements and stereo images taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera, or PanCam. The rover took pictures during its 360-degree study of the meteorite some five years ago. Researcher Kris Capraro of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has said that one reason the rock could not be replicated back in 2009 is that the rover could not see every square inch of the meteorite. The missing data created holes in the computer model rendering it unfit to be replicated by stereolithographic 3D printing.
The meteor on Mars is about the size of the inside of a kitchen oven, which is much bigger than the building space of the particular 3D printer used. As is fairly standard in such cases, the computer model was therefore broken into eleven sections. Some 281.11 cubic inches of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) were used. Also 37.29 cubic inches of plastic to form the support structure inside the rock model.
Capraro said: "It's been an interesting challenge to create the large 3D model... it's the next best thing to bringing back real Martian rock samples back to Earth."