Given the cost of transporting goods to Mars, the first human colonists of the Red Planet will need to pack lightly – but it's going to take a lot of equipment to get that settlement set up. Building habitats, tools and parts out of local resources on arrival would be an ideal solution, but Mars is a pretty barren place. So researchers from NASA and the University of Central Florida (UCF) are investigating how metals could be extracted from the Martian soil, refined, and used as "ink" to 3D print vital components.

NASA has already outlined its roadmap to getting humans to Mars, which involves studying what kind of resources that the first settlers could harvest from the planet. The less we need to cart from Earth, the better, with the agency saying that finding ways to live off the land could save over US$100,000 per kilogram (2.2 lb) per launch. It's known as in situ resource utilization, and that's the goal of this new project.

With that in mind, the NASA and UCF team plans to study a process called molten regolith electrolysis as a way to build structures locally. Regolith – the loose Martian soil – could be placed inside a chamber and heated to almost 1,650º C (3,000º F), before electrolysis melts down the metals and, as a bonus, produces much-needed oxygen as well. That molten metal can then be used in a 3D printer to create parts or pieces of shelter on demand, like the Sfero igloo concept.

"It's essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks," says Sudipta Seal, director of UCF's Advanced Materials Processing & Analysis Center. "UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it."

Using 3D printers to construct liveable housing isn't as outlandish a concept as it seems: the world's first 3D printed office building has gone up in Dubai (where else?) and a Chinese firm used the technique to build 10 houses in a single day. Replicating that success with local Martian materials is a new challenge of course, but that's the point of the new project.