What Are the Applications for 3D Printing in Space?
To infinity…and beyond! Who has not heard the iconic catchphrase from Toy Story which so perfectly encapsulates humanity’s desire to explore as far as they can reach? There is a reason why space is known as the final frontier, now we have reached the ends of the globe, it is the next region where we can take human innovation and our innate desire to explore. It is perhaps unsurprising then that additive manufacturing is now also being used to further humanity’s expansion. From satellites to rockets to food and more, we took a closer look at some of the most innovative ways that 3D printing is currently being used in Space!
Testing 3D Printing on the ISS
One of the major ways that 3D printing is currently present in space is through testing as astronauts on the ISS attempt to find whether AM is a viable technology to use even in micro-gravity. For example, Incus and the European Space Agency (ESA) have partnered to test Incus’ Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing process to see whether it would be viable for creating parts in a lunar base using scrap metal or existing surface materials. There are also experiments currently in the ISS to determine whether bioprinting could be used in the future to, in the words of the European Space Agency, “support medical treatment of long-duration space expeditions and planetary settlements.” These experiments are done in the BioFabrication Facility and recently a team from Wake Forest won a NASA challenge with their technology to create lab-grown human liver tissues using AM. Though there are even more experiments taking place including in Redwire’s Additive Manufacturing Facility.
AM Could Make Structures on the Moon
You’ve heard of 3D printed homes on Earth, but did you know that NASA and other organizations are also looking into its potential for habitations on the Moon and other planets? Space colonization, or the hypothetical permanent settlement on celestial objects other than Earth, has been a consideration for many organizations for a few years now as they have put research into seeing whether it would be possible. And the lynchpin for many is whether we would be able to create settlements and additive manufacturing is looked to as the possible solution. There are a number of projects, starting with ICON’s Project Olympus which aims to test and develop prototypes for a possible future full-scale additive construction system that could print infrastructure on the Moon. Redwire has a similar idea as they have sent supplies for the Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) study to the ISS to determine whether it would be possible to 3D print with lunar regolith, loose rock and soil, to create on-demand habitats on other planets and the moon. And there are many more, including AI SpaceFactory’s Marsha Design which was a winner of the NASA Centennial Challenge’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, Luyten and ESA projects.
3D Printing is Used to Make Satellites
Additive manufacturing is also increasingly being used in space is for satellites. Currently, there are projects from a number of companies including Boeing and Airbus which have used additive manufacturing to create increasingly complex, lighter parts for their satellites. For example, Airbus used Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) to make radio frequency (RF) components for two Eurostar Neo satellites and MIT 3D printed ion-powered nanosatellite thrusters last year. More recently, Fleet Space in Australia even announced that it would be launching 3D printed satellites to sit alongside the Centauri constellation.
Exploration and Colonization of Mars
The colonization of another planet may still seem like science fiction, but for some it is increasingly becoming a reality. Man has been trying to “conquer” Mars for years now and 3D printing is the chosen tool to help in these efforts. Indeed, it is often considered as one of the most promising techniques for to inhabit the famous red planet. For example, NASA launched the Perseverance Rover to Mars in 2020, with eleven 3D printed metal parts and tools. These allowed for low mass and high-precision targeting not achievable with conventional manufacturing. The purpose of Perseverance is to search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Another projects comes from Delft University of Technology, who developed Zebro robots that will be able to tunnel under the surface of Mars to create 3D-printed underground habitats. The robots can communicate with each other and share tasks: digging tunnels and building 3D printed structures. The underground living space could be suitable for potential colonization since it is less exposed to thermal changes. Finally, the last ambitious project in the field has been completed by ICON and Big-Bjarke Ingels Groups for NASA: they have created a realistic simulation of a 3D printed habitat, called Mars Dune Alpha. The goal is to “transport” it to Mars to support long-duration exploratory space missions.
3D Printed Thrusters
Additive Manufacturing is increasingly being used in aerospace and particularly space exploration for various applications. This is because it allows for lighter, cheaper and more efficient parts to be made due to the unique geometries that are possible with AM as well as the materials used. One such application involves using additive manufacturing for thrusters. One example is the case of the Griffin lunar lander.
Astrobotic’s Griffin Mission One (GM1) team has partnered with Agile Space Industries to create custom 3D printed thrusters for the Griffin lunar lander, known as Attitude Control Thrusters (ACT). Griffin will be used by NASA to take the Volatines Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon’s South Pole in 2023. The mission is particularly important because the rover will be used to map the presence of ice on the Moon.
3D Printed Rocket Engines
Many companies want to develop rocket engines quickly, and the easiest way to do that is to change manufacturing processes. As a result, space companies are turning to 3D printing. More and more often, engineers are using the SLS process to 3D print rocket engine parts with a copper alloy powder, which can withstand high temperatures. If we focus on the use of 3D printed rocket engines, we can find several recent projects, such as that of the Spanish company Pangea. This company develops and industrializes advanced 3D printed combustion devices made of innovative materials. They have designed a 3D printed rocket engine that is 15% more efficient than those traditionally produced.
One of the most important companies in the space sector, NASA, is also designing the rockets of tomorrow with the RAMPT (Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology) project. Through this, NASA is using additive manufacturing to create large space rocket engines.And finally, 3D printer manufacturer SPEE3D received a $1.5 million grant from the Australian government for a project to use its patented cold spray technology to print rocket engines using metallic material, among other examples.
3D Printed Rockets
In addition to the production of specific parts, additive manufacturing is also being used in the aerospace industry for the creation of 3D printed rockets. This growing trend is enabling companies in the industry to reduce the weight of final parts. Among them is Relativity Space, a U.S. startup that has experienced exponential growth in recent years, positioning itself as one of the 3D printing companies that has raised the most funds. Its Terran R project aims to be the first fully 3D printed and reusable rocket, which will be capable of launching more than 20,000 kg into low Earth orbit (LEO) in a reusable configuration. Terran R is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral starting in 2024.
On the other hand, SpaceX began implementing additive manufacturing around 2014, with the goal of creating parts for its rockets. As of today, with its goal of colonizing Mars by 2050, SpaceX is using 3D metal printing (DMLS) to streamline the manufacturing process. In fact, the technology allows it to build rockets that can be reused as many times as necessary.
3D Printing Food in Space
Another challenge that the aerospace industry is facing is the creation of 3D printed food. In fact, several projects combining 3D technology with space food have emerged in recent years. One of them is starring the Israeli company Aleph Farms, which announced in 2019 its project to 3D print meat on board the International Space Station (ISS). Thanks to Bioprinting Solutions’ 3D printer, they managed to create a cell-based meat that retains the texture, flavor and structure of a classic steak. To do this, bovine cells were harvested on Earth and sent to space where they were cultured. In addition to this, Aleph Farms has also participated in the so-called Mission: Space Food. This is a consortium of space, food and technology experts creating an integrative approach to human nutrition in space. Together with the culinary and engineering expertise of the Astrea company, they aim to develop new space foods to help astronauts thrive in this field.
Another such initiative comes from SMRC in collaboration with NASA, who sought to manufacture food for long-duration space missions. The goal was to create dishes through 3D printing that maintain pleasant flavors while including nutrients without degrading throughout the mission. NASA is also currently conducting a project in which it will recognize the work of a few companies that come up with innovative ways to get food into space. Of all the organizations that are participating, 4 of them have bet on 3D printing, being BigRedBites, ALSEC, Electric Cow and KEETA.
SpaceX’s 3D Printed Clothes for Astronauts
Another application of additive manufacturing in space is the creation of clothing needed for space missions. SpaceX has created 3D printed space suits and helmets that can be easily replicated with desktop 3D printers. Each helmet has a visor, valves, locks and microphones, and the suits meet the requirements of space travel. The FDM method of printing the helmets has been used to manufacture this apparel, as it provides a wider range of advanced materials, such as PEKK.
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