The Best 3D Printing Applications in Space
Space is both scary and fascinating at the same time. Its infinite emptiness and mystery gives most people an existential crisis. However, recent advancements mean that we are starting to understand, and even experiment with space. Therefore at 3Dnatives we searched for our Top 10 applications of 3D printing in space, to showcase some of the amazing projects that 3D printing is help create.
1 – 3D Printing in Zero Gravity
NASA collaborated recently with Californian company Made in Space to send a 3D printer to the ISS in 2014. This printer was to carry out a series of experiments in zero gravity. Among other things, this experiment was to determine whether astronauts would be able to produce necessary parts in space, to save on costs in the future.
2 – Refabicator
The Refabractor is an amazing machine, able to recycle materials into usable items. The system was developed by Thethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI) for NASA and is intended to convert plastic waste into printable materials at the International Space Station. The new recycling system is scheduled to be ready by April 2018 and then it will be used, together with a 3D printer from Made in Space to manufacture medical tools.
“Astronauts could use this technology to manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe re-using the waste could reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions”, explained Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI.
3 – Bio-printing in space
The University of Colorado contains a research centre affiliated with NASA dedicated to analysing cellular structures aboard the International Space Station. Its mission is to investigate the development of cancer cells, and develop new treatments.
To achieve this, researchers are using bio-printing methods that recreate diseased cells. From these tests, scientists discovered that through bio-printing gold atoms (which adhere quickly to the cells), it is possible to manipulate them through magnets. This represents a great advance of potential treatments in the future.
4 – Archinaut TDM, printing 3D structures in space
Californian company Made in Space announced a few months ago that it will embark on the Archinaut TDM mission, involving 3D printing large structures in space-like environments.
The project involves using a robotic arm that can develop large structures. This will save costs in transporting heavy machinery and raw materials as the machine will use materials found in space like lunar dust. This is one of the first steps towards permanent human settlements in space.
5 – Building structures on the Moon
Having been recently approved by the European Space Agency (ESA), architects are now assessing the feasibility of 3D printing using materials on the moon to create buildings. This would lead to an eventual “Moon Village” built from the Moon’s soil.
Laurent Pambaguian, the head of the project stated, “Our industrial team is investigating whether it could be used to build a lunar habitat.” Current 3D printers could print these lunar blocks at around 2m per hour, with expectations this will increase to around 3.5m/h. At this speed, we would be printing an entire building in a week. The construction is expected to begin within the next 15 years. This shows that using 3D printing, we are not far away from colonies on moons and planets.
6 – 3D Printing Meteorites
Due to being a few years from the technology to bring samples of Martian material home, we’ve had to settle the next best option. NASA has 3D-printed a replica of the largest meteorite to be found on Mars so far. The replica is of the Martian rock found by the Opportunity Rover in 2009. The plastic replica NASA made was created using measurements from the Opportunity’s panoramic camera. The replica used these measurements to print each segment, taking over 305 hours in total.
However, Planetary Resources went one better this year, 3D printing a model using a meteorite. Using 3D Systems’ ProX DMP 320 metal printer, the space rock was melted and formed into the desired model. They then managed to create a tiny model of a spacecraft from this meteorite after heating it to around 10,000 Celsius.
7 – 3D Printed Satellites
In the last two years, Thales Alenia Space has sent over 80 3D printed parts into space on their satellites. This is a big achievement considering the first satellite to be sent into orbit containing a 3D printed part was only launched in April 2015.
However, this year Thales is attempting to outdo itself. Thales intends to launch a satellite with dual 3D printed antenna supports measuring 480 x 378 x 364 mm. This is a large object to 3D print and send into space. Companies such as Thales have seized the opportunity that 3D printing has afforded them. 3D printing allows them to create multi-part structures in a single component. This allows satellites to be lighter and therefore cheaper to send into space.
8 – Lunar Quattro
Developed by Audi, the Lunar Quattro is a small rover created to go to the Moon. Its structure was printed in 3D from aluminium and titanium. The Lunar Quattro is equipped with solar panels that power the four electric motors placed under its wheels and three cameras that will allow it to take pictures of the Moon’s surface. The use of additive manufacturing has reduced the weight of this lunar rover which weighs only 30 kg – a significant achievement.
9 – 3D Printed Medical Devices in Space
Thanks to the Zero-Gravity 3D printer, it is possible to print objects in space. But what about medical equipment? This is the subject of research by Julielynn Wong who founded 3D4MD, a company that provides medical tools to regions that do not have access to them. Wong decided to test the Made in Space 3D printer to make medical equipment so that astronauts can heal quickly without waiting for the next refuelling. The results proved successful, showing medical instruments could be printed in space.
10 – CubeSat – Mini 3D-printed Satellites
The European Space Agency (ESA) has managed to create mini satellites from 3D printing using PEEK material. This material is a solid, stable thermoplastic with high temperature resistance. It added a nano putty so that the material is conductive. This will make it easier and cheaper to send the CubeSat into orbit. Furthermore, this initiative could potentially allow space missions in the future to cheaply send satellites into space.
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