Posts Tagged ‘space’

  • 3D printing bound for space

    It’s not quite up to the standards of the fictitious replicator technology featured in the Star Trek television franchise, but world’s first 3D printer bound for space is set to rocket its way up to the International Space Station (ISS) next year. 

    Space component manufacturer, Made In Space, announced in late July it had completed a series of microgravity tests on its new and specialised 3D printer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with the company conducting examinations of its proprietary 3D printer technology during four microgravity flights lasting two hours each, simulating conditions found on the ISS.

    Now that the printer has been put through its weightless paces and has passed the microgravity tests assigned to it by NASA and Made in Space, it is set to enter Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station in 2014.

    Noah Paul-Gin (center), Microgravity Experiment Engineering Lead, tests three Made in Space 3D printers in microgravity with team members Jason Dunn (left) and Mike Chen.

    “Humanity’s future ultimately depends on our ability to explore and occupy space. The 3D printing technologies developed and tested during our Zero-G flights are a cornerstone to building that future,” says Mike Snyder, Made in Space dead design engineer. “We reached a milestone in our goal to lay that cornerstone with the success of these prototype tests.”

    The unique challenges posed by off-Earth 3D printing require technology and hardware specifically adapted for space. In these microgravity tests, Made in Space assessed layer adhesion, resolution and part strength in the microgravity environment.

    Although, back on earth, desktop-sized 3D printers are still something of a novelty, the additive manufacturing technology is playing an ever-increasing role in manufacturing, and Made in Space’s printer is set play a major role in the production of vital tools and components for future space missions.

    “The 3D printer we’re developing for the ISS is all about enabling astronauts today to be less dependent on Earth,” says Noah Paul-Gin, microgravity experiment leader. “The version that will arrive on the ISS next year has the capability of building an estimated 30 per cent of the spare parts on the station, as well as various objects such as specialty tools and experiment upgrades.”

    3D printers use extrusion-based additive manufacturing to build objects layer by layer out of polymers, composites, metals and other materials. The success of these recent microgravity tests is evidence that Made in Space’s vision of a future is one step closer: a future where everything from simple tools to immense satellite arrays are printed in space.

    The flights were made as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. In 2011, Made in Space was chosen to perform both parabolic and suborbital test flights. The company was then awarded a NASA Phase 1 SBIR Contract to deliver their 3D printer to the ISS.

    Previous test flights guided the design of the current prototype, the first and only 3D printer designed for space. Over four flights consisting of 32 microgravity parabolas each, three prototype versions were tested. They were secured in Zero-G Corporation’s modified Boeing 727 to examine printing and hardware effects over the course of the two-hour flights.

    “There’s an awful lot of excitement about this technology. NASA benefits by extending low-cost opportunities through the Flight Opportunities Program to businesses like Made in Space. We’re looking at them as the poster child for the game-changing possibilities of 3D printing,” says Dougal Maclise, technology manager of the Flight Opportunities Program.

    The 3D printer prototype will next engage in environmental testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

    “Today, we demonstrated that our 3D printers can print in microgravity. Next year, we will demonstrate that they can print on the International Space Station,” says Mike Chen, strategic officer.

    Made in Space’s announcement comes only months after the The European Space Agency (ESA) said it had entered into a partnership with a consortium of organisations to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations.

    The consortium includes Italian space engineering firm Alta SpA, working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Monolite UK, and renowned architecture and integrated design firm, Foster + Partners.

    Addressing the challenges of transporting materials to the moon, the study is investigating the use of lunar soil, known as regolith, as building matter, to be used as the base material in a 3D printer, which would print out blocks used to build a multi-domed base station on the moon.

    “Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” said Laurent Pambaguian, heading the project for ESA. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

    The base’s design was guided by the properties of 3D-printed lunar soil, with a 1.5 tonne building block already produced as a demonstration of the technology. This was undertaken at a smaller scale in a vacuum chamber to echo lunar conditions. The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon.

    “3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the development of a common exploration strategy.”