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3-D printing with asteroid metal
This spacecraft prototype was created on a 3-D printer using metal from a meteorite found in Argentina. The object is sitting on the part of the meteorite that was left over. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

A palm-sized prototype spacecraft is the first geometric object to be 3-D printed from asteroid metal, Redmond-based Planetary Resources says.

The shiny object is being shown off at the International CES show in Las Vegas to boost Planetary Resources’ vision of mining precious materials from near-Earth asteroids. The feat also gives a boost to 3D Systems’ direct metal printer.

“It’s really an eye-opener for people,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, told GeekWire.

How was it done? First, find an asteroid. You don’t need to leave Earth to do that. Planetary Resources took advantage of the metal from a meteorite that was found at the Campo del Cielo impact site in Argentina. The ingredients include iron, nickel and cobalt – the same stuff found in refinery-grade steel.

In a blog post, Planetary Resources says the metal was pulverized and powdered, then processed on 3D Systems’ ProX DMP 320 direct metal printer. The 3-D printer spreads out layers of metal dust and zaps them with a laser, layer by layer, to build up the finished object.

The resulting object looks like an network of scaffolding and mini-thrusters. It’s “reminiscent of a design that could originate from a 3-D print in the zero-gravity environment of space,” Planetary Resources says.

Planetary Resources is developing families of spacecraft to identify promising asteroids and eventually go out and mine them. A prototype infrared telescope, dubbed the Arkyd 6, is due to go into orbit later this year. There won’t be any 3-D printing done on the Arkyd 6, but someday spacecraft will have to fabricate metal structures for replacement parts or construction elements.

Astronauts on the International Space Station are already experimenting with plastic 3-D printing – and Lewicki told GeekWire that his company is heavily into 3-D printing over in Redmond.

“We use a lot of it around the shop for prototyping,” he said. Soon, 3-D printed parts will make their way into Planetary Resources’ flight-ready spacecraft.

3-D printed object using space metal
The 3-D printed object sits on a plate engraved with the logos of Planetary Resources and 3D Systems. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

In-space metal fabrication is more complex, but it’s a key part of the business model for Planetary Resources as well as for Deep Space Industries, another asteroid mining venture.

“With infinite resources, you really have infinite possibilities,” Lewicki said.

Planetary Resources expects that the first resource to be mined from asteroids will be water, for use in the production of rocket fuel as well as drinking supplies and breathable oxygen for future space crews. But eventually, the company plans to go after precious metals as well. Who knows? Someday asteroid miners may be 3-D printing low-density lumps of platinum foam for delivery down to Earth.

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