3D-printed moons for spaceflight practice

A 3d-printed scale model of the martian moon phobos.
3D-printed scale models of asteroids and other planetary bodies are used for real-life testing of spacecraft navigation and landing systems. The Martian moon Phobos is shown in the foreground.
ESA / G. Porter

When you’re planning a space mission, you want to make sure you know the terrain.

One perhaps unexpected tool of the modern space agency is 3D printing. Detailed scale models of planetary bodies such as comets, asteroids and other worlds are used to aid in real-life testing of spacecraft navigation and landing systems.

The structure of the models is based on data and imagery from earlier space missions. The image above shows two versions of a model of the Martian moon Phobos. The white one in the background is the raw 3D-printed object. “We then add colour and surface finishing” to produce the more realistic-looking model in the foreground, explains Olivier Dubois Matra of European Space Agency’s Guidance, Navigation and Control Section. 

Mobile cameras are then used to represent the spacecraft’s view of the planet and are manoeuvred around the models. This allows for physical testing of guidance and landing procedures, and is used in conjunction with virtual testing using specialized software. 

Read more at the European Space Agency.

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