Over the last three years, we’ve seen the words ‘NASA’ and ‘3D printing’ linked so many times and for so many reasons that the world’s most-recognised space exploring organisation is starting to look like a lust-bitten adolescent, keen to consider the object of its infatuation from every conceivable angle. It is not hard to see why. With Barack Obama promising a mission to Mars by 2030, any process that can keep humans in space for longer periods of time is very much under NASA’s microscope. Right now, 3D printing’s combination of customisation and (relative) miniaturisation has caught its eye. This week a milestone in this relationship was reached, with the announcement that, by June 2014, a 3D printer will be operational on the International Space Station. Here we look in-depth at this and the other major stories that show the future of 3D printing may well be in the stars.
Made in Space
Having a 3D printer in orbit allows astronauts to print tools and spare parts for vital repairs, eliminating the need to bring these weighty, space-hogging items with them. Also, it ensures that, regardless of the right tool/ part for the job, a device will be available that can deliver it in a timely fashion. The ability to simply print the right equipment as and when it is required gives astronauts a flexibility they have never before had.
The 3D printer that will be jetting its way to the International Space Station next summer will be about the size of a microwave, though this is not your typical desktop device. It needs to be strong enough to withstand the extreme vibrations during lift-off and safe enough to operate in a profoundly enclosed environment. The company NASA chose for the job of delivering the machine is Made in Space, a 3D firm founded in 2010 to test the limits of what the technology could mean for the future of space exploration.
As Made in Space says on its website, 3D printing offers solutions to many of the clearest problems that roadblock long term space missions. Currently, NASA’s ambition is limited by its dependence on material that can be transported from the earth and equipment and structures that fit within the rocket and can withstand the force of a launch. Plus, there is the general lack of adaptability to unexpected situations faced by astronauts once they leave the planet. If Made in Space can successfully develop 3D printing for use in orbit, then all of these problems are, potentially, overcome.
What begins with printing off a few machine parts on the International Space Station could end with large-scale structures, spacecraft and satellites being built in space. As the building materials and tools do not need to be transported from earth or withstand lift-off, the possibilities become massively more diverse.
In short, a lot of very smart people reckon 3D printing might well be a key factor in the possibility of human beings working, surviving and perhaps even living in distant locations across the Milky Way.
3D printed lunar rocks
“This isn’t a prank”, said Professor Amit Bandyopadhay of Washington State University back in November last year. He was announcing his Mechanical and Materials Engineering team’s latest creation: tools made from regolith stimulants parts, what the layman might call ‘moon rocks’, rendered using a 3D printer.
In 2010, Professor Bandyopadhay and his team had been approached by NASA with an offer of 10 pounds of raw regolith stimulants direct from the lunar surface. His job was to see if precise replicas could be made using a 3D printer. Though the pieces he revealed to the world last year were not quite exact copies, they were close enough to suggest moon material can be created on earth. With a large supply of lunar rocks, NASA can freely experiment with the material – whether it be to fashion tools or to build structures for working or living. If it is found that we can create these items using regolith stimulants, it means astronauts can construct space stations on the moon without carrying tools or building materials from earth.
A large section of our comprehensive guide to the culinary possibilities of 3D printing that we published last month was dedicated to Texas 3D print firm Systems and Materials Research, lead by Anjan Contractor, and its attempts to develop a 3D printer that takes essential, powdered nutrients and prints them into full, satisfying, tasty meals. The backer for this project was, you guessed it, NASA, who handed over a $125,000 grant to find out if such a system could eventually be used to feed hungry astronauts.
Providing sustenance for long space missions is a key problem. As well as the space taken up by provisions and storage equipment such as freezers and fridges in the rocket, there is the issue of variety. Men and women spending two or three years in space will require a range of different food stuffs and nutritional sources to stay healthy. If 3D food printing works, it can provide a well-balanced diet while taking up next to none of the ship’s capacity.
3D printed rocket engine parts
Up until this week’s announcement that NASA would be sending a 3D printer into space, perhaps the most significant story of all regarding space travel and additive manufacturing was NASA’s successful testing of a printed rocket engine injector. This component supports the movement of liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas to the combustion chamber of the engine, so comes under incredible pressure when the rocket is moving. Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Californian company charged with producing the part, used selective laser melting, a method that melts and fuses metallic powder, allowing for a precise recreation of complex computer designed objects.
As you can imagine, precision is key for such a crucial part of a rocket’s engine and any mistake in rendering puts lives in danger. Though the final piece tested by NASA was not quite as large as a finished injector needs to be, it was precise enough in its detail to test accurately.
The main advantages of printing such components are time effectiveness, convenience and cost. Typically, producing a single injector by traditional, subtractive means takes about a year, due to the strict measurements and exact detail required. With 3D printing, however, the entire process can be reduced to a mere four months.
NASA, more than any other organisation or company across the globe, seems to most understand the true usefulness of 3D printing. All of its projects stress the most clear benefit of additive manufacturing: the ability to customise objects with stunningly precise detail. While some of the above-mentioned products may never bear fruit, as long as 3D printing continues to develop at its current, rapid pace, there is no reason for this particular love affair to fizzle out any time soon.