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Space explorers have yet to get their hands on the replicator of "Star Trek" to create anything they might require. But NASA has developed a technology that could enable lunar colonists to carry out on-site manufacturing on the moon, or allow future astronauts to create critical spare parts during the long trip to Mars.
The method, called electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3), uses an electron beam to melt metals and build objects layer by layer. Such an approach already promises to cut manufacturing costs for the aerospace industry, and could pioneer development of new materials. It has also thrilled astronauts on the International Space Station by dangling the possibility of designing new tools or objects, researchers said.
For EBF3, metal wires continually feed into the tip of an electron beam. The beam melts the wires and applies them carefully on top of a rotating plate to build an object up slowly, layer by layer.
A few similar technologies exist, but EBF3 has several advantages. First, its electron beam requires far less power than comparable devices and produces less radiation compared to more powerful beams. Its dual wire feeders also allow scientists to create mixes of new materials that vary in strength or other properties within the same solid piece.