Where No Manufacturer Has Gone Before: The Industry of Mars Colonization, Part 2

Mars planet satellite station orbit base.

In this two-part series, we'll explore the challenges we face in colonizing Mars, as well as the various ways these challenges are being approached from research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and supply chain perspectives.

3D Printing … in Space!

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in 3D printing for space manufacturing applications. In fact, in 2017 NASA commissioned an American company called Made In Space to develop a microgravity 3D printer, dubbed the Vulcan Hybrid Manufacturing System.

Earlier this year, NASA renewed the contract so that the company could continue their research. When complete, the machine will be able to work with over 30 metal and polymer materials. In preparation, NASA has already begun to develop applicable standards as well as a catalog for in-space manufacturing.

With great adaptability, high precision, and the ability to efficiently create components with minimal resources, additive manufacturing offers many benefits over standard manufacturing processes. Traditional methods such as casting and forging are difficult to perform in the demanding space environment. It’s also very expensive to transport all the equipment and supplies needed for these methods.

3D printing, on the other hand, provides several financial benefits for space manufacturing applications. Because this manufacturing method is capable of printing any item required for a job, there is no need to transport additional accessories and equipment. Given the proper designs and materials, 3D printers could probably even replicate themselves.

Additive manufacturing also allows for speedy production cycles, closed-loop recycling systems, minimized raw material waste, and simple customization options — all of which are likely to be essential when colonizing Mars.

In addition to these processes, mining would also become a major factor in space colonization. Scattered across the solar system are countless asteroids, each of which contain unforetold amounts of rare metals and minerals. These specialized materials, such as palladium and iridium, are highly valuable as they can be used in high-demand applications such as renewable energy and medical devices. Researchers have also explored the possibility of using moon dust in 3D printing applications, which would make good use of a highly abundant material.

Other applications for 3D printing in space include essential items such as food, electronics, satellites, and even entire habitats. In 2015, NASA held a contest for 3D printed habitat designs that could actually be feasible for Mars habitation.

The finalists’ designs featured all kinds of ingenious elements, including a robotic mixer that collects various Martian materials to create concrete domes capable of protecting humans from the harsh Martian elements, a prefabricated focal structure that transforms into a giant self-contained 3D printer capable of building walls around itself, and chic multi-floor structures that shield against solar radiation while still allowing sunlight to shine through to the interior.

A Martian Odyssey: Supply Chains and Logistics

As developments in sustainable manufacturing on Mars stimulate the Martian economy, the need for interplanetary supply chain practices will become increasingly important for ensuring a smooth colonization process. In some ways, supply chains and logistics won’t be all that different from our current paradigms. Supply chain managers will still have to take an analytical approach toward risk mitigation, supplier evaluation, and purchasing, for example.

However, things will be very different in terms of equipment needed, costs, and timing. Supply chains in space aren't unprecedented — the International Space Station (ISS), a space laboratory in low Earth orbit, currently employs a complex supply chain in order to maintain the supply inventory for the station’s crew, giving us a glimpse into the various challenges that a Martian supply chain would impose.

The biggest obstacles stem from the rockets needed to ship supplies into space. It’s not like the ISS has access to an interplanetary Amazon Prime — parts and supplies cannot be frequently transported at low costs. The rockets used for space logistics are extremely expensive, and typically cannot be reused after a trip. In 2011, a single delivery to the ISS cost $133 million.

For the past decade, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has been developing the Falcon 9 rockets, which make use of some reusable components. Musk is determined to eventually build completely reusable rockets, but this, of course, is much easier said than done. Although this technology and others like it have helped to reduce launch costs, NASA recently announced that each cargo delivery on a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 would cost approximately $228 million.

Because of the expense, large one-time deliveries are common and would probably be the norm on a colonized Mars, which would require extremely meticulous, precise planning. There is no room for error on these missions — not when one misstep could mean loss of life and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted.

In order to reduce the potential for financial and logistical disasters, MIT formed the Interplanetary Supply Chain Management and Logistics Architecture project. By pairing terrestrial supply chain models with integrated space network models, the initiative aims to develop a sustainable supply chain framework for interplanetary logistics. The goal is to establish a system of nodes between Earth, the moon, and Mars that would act as a connective network of transfer points in order to facilitate a more streamlined flow of supplies.

The Final Frontier

As we continue to draw closer to a fully functional Martian colony, the manufacturing industry and many related sectors will be playing a major role in transforming this dream into a reality. For now, we will continue to enjoy the fantasy from the big screen and in books, staying tuned for the next exciting advance.




Image Credit: u3d/Shutterstock.com

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