Editorial Feature

Made In Space: Zero-Gravity 3D Printing

The 3D Printer during testing in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. (NASA Image)

Made in Space aims to advance our future in space by building manufacturing technology for use in the zero gravity conditions of space. One of the manufacturing technologies they are currently developing for use in space is a 3D printer.

The Cost of Sending Equipment into Space

The obstacles and risks associated with space travel are almost innumerable. As a result, there are always obstacles and emergencies that are not planned for or encountered until a mission has already begun.

These emergencies often require new equipment that is not readily available on the spacecraft or space structure and must be launched from Earth to the space structure (such as the International Space Station) an incredibly costly ordeal.

The cost of bringing such equipment to space is around ten thousand dollars per pound of equipment. Building this equipment on Earth and then launching it into space is much less efficient than it would be to simply build the equipment in space.

Printing 3D Parts in Zero-Gravity

Having 3D printers on-board a spacecraft would allow the astronauts much greater versatility in their ability to handle these emergencies and would allow them greater versatility in their missions.

Video Credit: Autodesk Reality Computing | YouTube.com

3D printers essentially print out a material layer by layer until eventually a fully three dimensional object is created. The materials used are normally a heated plastic or a heated metal, although, in certain cases other materials are also used. The 3D printer created by Made In Space used plastic materials in its 3D printing as heavier weights can be extremely expensive to transport into space.

Self-Replicating 3D Printers in Space

3D printers can be used for many different applications and as such are incredibly useful to have on a spacecraft. If a part were to break in space or during ‘long term’ space mission, such as a mission to Mars, the astronauts on-board would have to wait for another spacecraft to bring them the part. However, an on-board 3D printer could print the spare part straight away.

A 3D printer might even be able to create replacement parts for itself if an astronaut were to notice that some of its parts were deteriorating. Rather than bringing a toolbox, full of tools they think might be useful on a space mission, astronauts could just bring a 3D printer capable of printing the tools they find they need during the course of the mission.

Testing on the International Space Station

The wide range of uses for a 3D printer are what drove Made In Space to run experiments on their 3D printer with NASA’s assistance. Their 3D printer recently underwent significant testing on board the International Space Station furthering their goal of achieving functioning manufacturing in space.

The printer was made to print a series of three dimensional objects to test its general functioning in space. Most of the three dimensional objects chosen were chosen for their ability to display the printer’s functionalityin space so that it could be compared to the printers functioning on Earth.

Video Credit: ISSCASIS | YouTube.com

These objects demonstrated the printer’s tensile strength (its ability to remain unbroken as it is pulled), its flexural strength (its ability to withstand bending) and its compressive strength (its ability to maintain its size when a force that would reduce its size is applied). These objects were printed by a 3D printer located in space as well as a 3D on Earth, which allowed for scientists to compare the two sets of products from the two different printers and verify the success of both.

Another of the more interesting object that the printer completed aboard the International Space Station was an object that is difficult to print here on Earth because gravity can cause the heated material to sag before it cools. This gravity induced deformation is something that a 3D printer in space does not have to worry about and in this way 3D printing in space can be more efficient than 3D printing on Earth.

3D Printed Ratchet Wrench

One of the most unique of the objects attempted was the printed ratchet. The 3D printer in space was able to print a functioning ratchet tool proving that a 3D printer can be used to print tools while on board of a space structure such as the International Space Station (ISS). This print was also unique from the other prints attempted as this was not an object that was already preloaded on the printer.

The information the printer required to complete the ratchet print was sent electronically from Earth to the printer. The capability of a 3D printer to do this is especially significant because it means that in an emergency situation a ground team could develop the plans for a three dimensional object to solve the emergency and then send this design to the printer to print.

International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station. (NASA Image)

Made In Space's Additive Manufacturing Facility

NASA will be one of Made In Space’s consumers to use this new printer on the ISS and Made In Space will retain ownership of it. Made In Space hopes to also create a device that will function alongside the AMF in zero-gravity to recycle any waste material back into the printer’s feed. This means that the printer will need less material from earth and thus even further reduces the effort and costs associated with space travel.

The advancements in 3D printing in zero-gravity undoubtedly strengthen the independence of mankind’s space structures from Earth. It is the first step in many to making our civilization a spacefaring civilization and is one more step towards moving our dreams of deep space travel from our imagination into reality.

References and Further Reading

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