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Images of Block Island sent from Opportunity's PanCam
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8 of the 11 sections printed in ABS
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Fully finished and painted print next to the smaller version
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The team and the 3D printed rock
There are two Rovers currently roaming Mars’ unchartered terrain, Curiosity and Opportunity. Amazingly Opportunity has outlasted its predicted lifespan by 40 times, in January it had been operational for a decade!
A decade! Think about some technology you had a decade ago and ask yourself where it is now. Where’s that Nokia N-Gage? That original Xbox? That Concorde? Not roaming the terrain of Mars and reporting back finds that could lead to some of the most substantial breakthroughs in space exploration, without endangering a single living soul unlike the ill fated Columbia Space Shuttle, which malfunctioned killing all seven crew members just four months before Opportunity launched.
One of the most significant discoveries made by Opportunity is that of the meteorite Block Island, found in 2009. It’s significant becuase the majority of meteorites break up when they hit the martian ground because the atmosphere is not dense enough to slow them down. Only a perfect storm of specific entry point couples with a shallow flight path could keep a meteorite intact as must have been the case with Block Island – the largest meteorite yet found on Mars.
Opportunity’s panoramic camera has been able to capture pictures of the 67 cm iron meteorite. With these pictures and the rover's precise measurements those boffins over at NASA have been able to reproduce an exact replica of the rock using… yep you guessed it… 3D Printing.
Using an FDM machine and ABS as the material they’ve managed to reproduce a replica in 11 sections to be glued together. The replica give researchers the chance to examine the contours of the rock, which could have entered the atmosphere during the Noachian period approximately 4,000 million years ago.
Despite having images of the rock since 2009 it wasn’t until recently that researchers were able to fill gaps in the 3D model left from the rover’s original images. Firstly they printed miniature versions of the rocks but Kris Caparro from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was adamant that the only natural way to visualise the images that Opportunity had beamed back was for the rock to be life-size.
The researchers applied software methods usually used to help navigate the rover. They created depth meshes of the meteorite's surface from six positions, then combined them into a three-dimensional digital model. This model was then split up and printed in 11 sections, which took over 305 hours! The Block Island replica was then painted to match the colours from Opportunity’s PanCam images.
Though this 3D printed rock is only a fraction of the estimated half-tonne weight of the real Block Island, Caparro said, "it's the next best thing to bringing back real Martian rock samples back to Earth."
We just hope that they release the files so we can print for Thingi Thursday!