3D printing may still be relatively young, but it is apparently already making its way to the final frontier. That’s right, in the same year as Richard Branson and his team most likely, 3D printing will be heading to space courtesy of NASA.
A (3D) Space Odyssey
Specifically, US space agency NASA will be launching a 3D printer into space sometime next year to help with the manufacturing of spare parts and tools for space stations in zero gravity conditions. Of course, this will be the first 3D printer to make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the hope is that it will help to reduce the costs of future missions while also saving time and allowing more flexibility.
The 3D printer is being developed by technology startup ‘Made in Space’ and will be roughly the size of a microwave.
“Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” explains the company’s CEO Aaron Kemmer. “Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?”
Of course, 3D printing in space does come with some unique challenges. Not only will the printer need to take into account the lack of gravity, but it will also have to withstand some rather intense conditions – such as the vibrations caused by lift off. It’s also of vital importance that the machine operates safely and doesn’t break down – particularly if the crews are going to be reliant on it.
More to the point though, it’s also critical that the parts produced by the 3D printers be able to stand up to the rigors of space exploration. This is something that has previously been difficult with additive manufacturing, but is now possible thanks to the use of laser-melted titanium and nickel-chromium powders which replace commonly used polymer materials for much stronger components.
Other aspects of manufacturing in space are very different from down here on Earth – and can actually be easier in some ways. ‘Cold welding’ for instance is the name for welding in space, which is done simply by touching two metal surfaces together – if you have two flat surfaces of a similar metal and you bring them into contact in the vacuum of space, then will adhere strongly together doing away with the need for heating/fusion techniques.
One Giant Leap…
Going one step further than spare parts and tools though, NASA hopes that in the future 3D printing could be used to develop small satellites that could be launched directly from the International Space Station to then send data back down to Earth. Of course, those schematics could also be created on Earth and then transmitted as instructions to the 3D printer in the space station – potentially saving thousands on expensive launches and allowing many more satellites and telescopes to be launched.
This serves as yet another demonstration of the power of modern manufacturing techniques, and it’s incredibly exciting to think where this could take us in the future. Watch this space…