Let’s talk about 3D Printing in Space

Image credit: NASA

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station conduct scientific research using dozens of special facilities, which also provides them with a place to eat, sleep and exercise. Today, they depend on cargo resupply missions to survive and make their missions possible.

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NASA Astronaut Barry (Butch) Wilmore holds a ratchet wrench created in 2014 with the 3D printer aboard the International Space Station using a design file transmitted from the ground. Credit: NASA

According to NASA, More than 7,000 pounds of spare parts must be sent to the station each year. An additional 29,000 pounds of spare parts for space flight equipment are stored aboard the station and another 39,000 on the ground, ready to fly if needed.

Cargo refueling missions are a crucial part of space activity. As operations expand, these missions will become more expensive and complex, forcing NASA to consider alternative options for supplying the spacecraft.

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ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti working on the 3D Printer aboard the space station.
Credits: NASA

“To send a pound of cargo into low earth orbit, currently costs around $10,000”, said Tracie Prater, Materials Engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center, during a “Techbriefs” interview.

Even in space numbers, that number is astronomical. Luckily, there is a solution: an on-demand 3D printing “machine shop” for long-duration space missions.

On-demand manufacturing of parts and tools using 3D printing will dramatically reduce the time it takes to get parts into orbit and increase the reliability and safety of space missions while reducing mission costs.

Today’s space missions’ efforts to get parts into orbit can take months or years. With 3D printing, parts can be manufactured within hours or even minutes.

While it is generally expensive, yet very possible to send equipment to the ISS, it is not at all practical for future missions to the Moon or Mars. Astronauts on these long journeys must be able to manufacture their spare parts, tools, and essential materials, both for everyday needs and to quickly adapt to unexpected circumstances.

“For me”, Prater told Techbriefs, “3D printing is all about reducing the logistics and the amount of volume you have to take. If we are to make spaceflight sustainable and reduce the costs of long-duration missions, we can’t launch everything from Earth”.

“We need to be able to use the materials we have around us. The motto of our project is ‘Make it. Don’t take it.’ I tend to think of human space flight as a long camping trip. If I’m close to home I can easily get whatever I need when I need it, but if I’m far away (March is a 6-9 month solo trip) I can’t take whatever I would need”.

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The wrench that was designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space. Credis: Made In Space

NASA realized this years ago, and in 2014, the first 3D printer, developed by “Made in Space”, a California-based company, was sent to the space station. “Made In Space” CEO, Andrew Rush told IndustryWeek that the company would operate as a construction worker “hard hat” to create ready-made products in aluminum, steel, and titanium for use in space missions.

A wrench was one of the first parts printed in space. It demonstrated that it was possible to remotely send a design from the ground to a manufacturing system sitting in zero-gravity, over 200 miles above. Several other functional elements were made by the printer, including an antenna.

NASA is now studying how to recycle plastic waste, including previously printed objects, and turning it into the 3D printer’s filament so that astronauts could print parts, and then reuse the materials once they are done.

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International Space Station astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore holds a science sample container that took two hours to make. The container was the first object to be printed with two parts: a lid and a container. Credits: NASA

Recently, “Made in Space” delivered a recycler to the space station, to determine which materials are most efficient for recycling into 3D printing filament.

But that’s not all. NASA is preparing to establish a sustained presence on the Moon and Mars, allowing astronauts to further explore and conduct more science.

According to NASA, the agency is working with ICON, a construction technology company based in Austin, Texas, on the initial research and development of a space construction system that could support future exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The company has managed to create neighborhoods of 3D printed houses and structures on Earth and has participated in NASA’s “3D Printed Habitat Challenge”, which demonstrated construction methods and technologies that may be applied to construction efforts that will take place beyond our planet of origin.