NASA is gearing up for extended space exploration, with astronauts traveling back to the moon and beyond, even going as far as Mars (see the NASA Brief "Charting the Course for Sustainable Human Space Exploration"). Among the technological advances that will make these dreams of cosmic voyages a reality is 3D printing. Not only does this bring the possibility of new and more efficient designs to be used in rocket engines, but the possibility of 3D printing off-planet can solve some tricky supply chain problems that need to be addressed in order to enable extended space travel.
3D printed parts
As GE has discovered with regard to the 3D printing of jet engine parts, in certain designs, additive manufacture achieves the greatest efficiency. Dr. Michael Gazarik, associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, DC, declares: "NASA recognizes that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by 'printing' tools, engine parts or even entire spacecraft."
In addition to offering better performance, these components can prove to be more cost effective, coming to completion in a third of the time and costing as much as 70% less than their conventional counterparts.
"Out of this world" 3D printing
While 3D printing on earth has proven itself to be very useful, the real game-changer will be doing it in space. That's the vision of Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, who says: "The future of space exploration will change forever when everything we need for space is built in space. In this future, parts, habitats and structures are not launched and assembled, but instead 3D-printed, layer-by-layer in outer space with additive manufacturing."
Made in Space has been pursuing this goal with a 3D printer designed to be used in space.
The Made In Space 3D printer will be the first manufacturing device ever used off-Earth. It will be installed in the International Space Station to print a series of test items in 2014.
The hardware meets NASA's standards and, as seen in this video, has been tested in environments designed to simulate space on earth.
The next step is a test run in space itself when the printer launches beyond the Earth's atmosphere in September 2014. The printer is to produce 21 parts that will be observed via video recording and then examined directly when they are returned to Earth. Made is Space has also invited people to give their own suggestions about what should be printed on the maiden voyage. When that test proves the 3D printing process works in space, the next goal will be to "demonstrate utilization of meaningful parts."
Getting beyond "the sky's the limit"
In an email exchange, Grant Lowery, marketing and cmmunications manager at
Made In Space, answered some questions about the first 3D printer in space and the materials with which it will work. He said the first machine will be printing in ABS. The next unit, which is "scheduled for installation on the ISS as a permanent additive manufacturing tool" will have "multiple material capacity," but the company is "not publicly saying what additional materials will be utilized."
The first Made In Space 3D printer to be deployed on the Space Station will use thermoplastics to create parts and tools as a test demonstration.
Another issue is controlling the printer. I asked if the 3D printing is to be controlled from Earth, directly from the printer in space, or both. Grant answered that it will be a combination: "For the initial tech demo parts, some will be initiated on station, while others will be triggered via a computer on Earth -- it's essentially emailing your hardware to space. Part of the key for long term development is effectively making the printing process as automated as possible as to minimize crew time."
As Made in Space has publicized the fact that it is open to requests for printing, I asked if Grant could comment on those. He answered: "It's amazing to see the breadth of creativity people exhibit with their ideas of what to print in space -- we've had a great cross section of ideas, from the functional (various tools, parts and experiments) to the symbolic (space shuttle replicas, a sun dial, art pieces). We've had some out there suggestions, but I like that people are really trying to find inventive uses for the print ideas."
Grant wouldn't reveal which parts will actually be rendered in 3D, stressing that the first trip's prints will be limited. But there is always the next round: "Once our permanent printer is installed on the ISS, we'll have a much wider opportunity to explore the diversity of print ideas."
If you were offered the opportunity, what would you request to have printed in space? And before you say, "Earl Grey, hot," remember that trying to get a proper cup of tea in space is what led to disaster for Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.