The 3D printing revolution is set to continue, as NASA plan to hop aboard the new, technological craze. Now with designs on propelling a 3D printer into space, NASA engineers are busy manufacturing equipment that will make space printing a reality.
The relatively compact 3D printers could yield a number of startling benefits. Currently, astronauts are loaded up with a dizzying array of tools and equipment. Deploying 3D printers could lessen these burdens, and reduce the amount of equipment required during a launch event.
Current 3D printers are, obviously, only designed for utility on Earth. As a consequence, quite a number of challenges are presented, in attempting to guarantee their operation in space. Firstly, dispatching the device into space would place it under enormous strain during the launch event. After launch, printers will then need to withstand the stresses of functioning in orbit; this includes interchangeable temperatures and air pressures, limited availability of power and microgravity conditions.
The printers are expected to serve as flying factories, capable of creating an enormous catalog of objects. The machines would work like traditional 3D printers, and would build up an object on a layer by layer basis, gathering plastic strands, wrapped around large spools.
According to the Associated Press, Andrew Filo, a consultant working on NASA’s new project, described the ability to perform 3D prints in space as “Christmas.” He suggests the devices could be used to eliminate the need for rationing in space.
Meanwhile, Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, discussed the importance of being able to design and produce equipment “on the fly” to remain adaptable; he suggests that 3D printing could open up entirely new opportunities.
NASA has contracted Made In Space to manufacture an entirely new device, sporting 3D printing capabilities, which could withstand the punishing conditions of space. The company employed NASA’s illustrious reduced gravity aircraft, affectionately coined the “vomit comet,” to test preliminary iterations of their 3D printers under weightlessness conditions.
Aaron Kemmer, Made In Space’s chief executive officer, ruminates over the possibility of space-based 3D printers. Kemmer visualizes their use during emergency repairs, rather than simply hoping the astronauts have the tools and spare parts already aboard. For example, during the Apollo 13 mission catastrophe, astronauts were forced to improvise in creating a carbon dioxide filter, using nothing but duct tape, a plastic bag and a manual cover; 3D printers would have avoided such a contingency and would, therefore, have turned the mission into a success.
Made In Space is planning to shuttle its 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014, aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The first prints will remain part of the testing phase, producing different structures to investigate their strength and durability. Essentially, the mission will be a proof-of-concept mission, designed to see whether their machines can adequately function in a microgravity setting.
Mike Chen, Made In Space’s chief strategy officer, spoke of his company’s latest endeavors at the World Maker Faire, on Sept. 21. Chen hopes designers and engineers on Earth will get involved in the exciting new project, submitting some of their radical ideas to his organization.
Chen also explains the extreme costs and logistical difficulties involved in launching equipment into space, before moving onto boast about the enormous benefits of 3D printing:
“Why would you go through all the energy to build it here and launch it, when you can just build it there?”
NASA and Made In Space’s collaborative efforts, in propelling 3D printers into space, could signal a new era of space development and manufacturing. For the first time, engineers may not have to design equipment to withstand high-gravity environments, or gruelling space launches.
By: James Fenner
The Big Story Link