3D printing a tabletop-size Martian landscape

During the winter of 2016, I was a Science Sandbox Fellow at the New Lab, a futuristic and quirky workspace in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When I saw the square-meter sized BigRep large-format 3D printer there and was told I had access, I instantly knew I wanted to make a large 3D printed alien landscape. Mars was an easy choice, mainly because I could imagine that in the near future someone might stand on Mars, seeing the same landscape I printed. There is also excellent very high-resolution terrain data available for some regions of Mars, meaning that I could accurately print a region that humans could relate to in scale.

My starting point was to look at the digital digital terrain models, DTMs for short, which are created and released by the HiRISE team. HiRISE is the name of high resolution camera which is run by consortium of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory & Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab. It uses extremely high resolution images taken from two different angles, which are combined with other data to make a highly detailed 3D surface map. The HiRISE camera is on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, which has been observing Mars from orbit since March 2006.

An image of a spacecraft with a satellite dish, solar panels, and a gold foil central body over the rusty red cratered surface of Mars, with lines indicating the atmosphere interacting with the motion of the spacecraft.

An image of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter aerobraking in the Martian atmosphere upon its arrival. NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

I searched through the several hundred DTMs available at the time looking for particularly interesting terrain to print, and settled on this fascinating layered landscape in the giant Martian canyon Valles Marineris. The canyon measures one fifth the total circumference of Mars, stretching the distance from New York to L.A., and is four times as deep as than the Grand Canyon. The printed area covers a tiny fraction of Valles Marineris located in the southwest part of the sub-region Candor Chasma. This area of Mars is not only visually striking, but also interesting from a scientific perspective – the layered hills in this area are thought to be formed by deposits from extremely salty water early in Mars’ history. More information about the geologic processes that shaped this area can be found in this paper and presentation.


To import the terrain data, I used the HiRISE DTM plugin for the free 3D modeling program Blender, which made it very easy to get the terrain into a mesh format which can be manipulated (see the plugin tutorial). The mesh is so detailed that keeping it at full resolution will likely crash the program, and also is more detailed than our 3D printer can handle. If we were printing at the full resolution of the HiRISE data, we could resolve shockingly small features only ~80 cm in size!

Due to the combination of the printer resolution and the area of the model used, which covers about 4 km x 4 km, the actual resolution of the 3D print is less. After importing the mesh, I extruded the landscape, and cut the bottom. Margaret Hewitt of BigRep was very helpful with cleaning the 3D model using Rhino and preparing it to print.  During test printing we found that the print came out much smoother and less “terraced” when printed vertically, standing on a thin edge. The 3D printer used was the BigRep One, and was printed as a set of 16″ x 16″ tiles to help cut down on warping, making a total area of 32″ x 32″. It was printed with heat-tolerant, silver colored PRO HT filament since I though I might be vacuum forming over the tiles.

I wanted the surface to resemble Mars as much as possible, so I gave the print a coat of fine stone texture spray paint, and then layered on other paints using the color HiRISE images as a guide. I sealed with many layers of clear matte finish so that the surface could be touched.

The Marscape is currently being used in astronomy classes at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, and will be used for in the future for programs for visually impaired at the American Museum of Natural History and other educational programs. If you have any ideas about how the print can be used, or if you’re in the NYC area and would like to borrow it for educational purposes, please let me know.

Finally I’d like to thank the folks at New Lab, Science Sandbox, BigRep, and the Simons Foundation for supporting the project and generally doing amazing things, particularly Greg Boustead, Hannah Max, Mari Kussman, Alex Susse, and Margaret Hewitt.


Colorfully painting one of my test prints, because why not?