And 3D printing is bringing us steps closer to conquering it. In 2014, the first object was 3D printed in space by the International Space Station (ISS). It was a printhead faceplate.
Since then ISS has printed other objects, including a racket wrench that was the first object printed from a 3D file sent from the ground.
But these items are far from being considering the end goal. Several organizations are working to see exactly how 3D printing can be applied to space technology.
Creating for Space
3D printing could reduce costs associated with manufacturing and launching rockets. The U.S. Air Force is “pursuing two aims: reducing the cost of rocket propulsion components and subsystems through the use of new materials and additive manufacturing; and enhancing its overall launch capabilities while lowering costs through improvements to existing rockets or by developing new ones.”
The first step was awarding a $545,000 contract to the Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering. The school will use the money to look into manufacturing cooling chambers for liquid rocket engines.
Students at University of California – San Diego are also working on liquid-fueled rocket engines. But their goal is to 3D print an entire engine.
These members of the school’s chapter of Students for the Exploration of Space have already created and test-fired a small rocket they called Tri-D. Now they are developing a bigger one.
Making Old Materials New Again
Space shuttles used to have ceramic tiles on the underside. These tiles were great at keeping down heat, but they had a problem typical to ceramic: they cracked.
Until researchers at HRL Laboratories “trick[ed] ceramics into behaving like plastic.” The material they developed starts as polymer-like resin. That resin is printed, then fired. Firing the resin converts it into ceramic.
This ceramic could potentially be used in any situation where extreme heat from high-velocity air friction will be encountered. In other words, space travel.
Building in Space
We could be seeing structures built on the moon – out of moon dust. NASA asked researchers at Washington State University to see if they could develop a way to reform melted regolith (the official word for moon dust) using 3D printing.
Most likely the technique will be used to repair broken tools. But the European Space Agency (ESA) is also exploring the possibility of using materials found on the moon’s surface to 3D print lunar habitats. If possible, structures could be built on the moon using minimal to no Earth resources.
In the two years since astronauts started working with 3D printers at ISS, they have found a few obstacles. One is there’s no gravity in space.
In some instances, no gravity means better materials. But it also means the printer may not work. Boeing, however, is planning to take care of that problem. The aerospace company has filed a patent for a 3D printer that will work even when levitating in space.
Building in Space Meets Manufacturing on Earth
With the concerns we have about running out of natural resources here on Earth, it only makes sense to turn to space to see what we can harvest there. And Planetary Resources and 3D Systems developed a way to do just that.
The two companies took metals including iron, nickel, and cobalt from the Campo Del Cielo impact in South America. These metals were turned into a printable powder before being 3D printed into a spacecraft prototype.
The goal was to show what could be printed in space for the astronauts to use to create and repair tools. But Made in Space sent their Additive Manufacturing Facility printer to ISS in April 2016. Now it’s possible for you to send your 3D files to the space station to be printed and sent back down to Earth.
That’s not all for Made in Space, though. The startup will also start manufacturing ZBLAN optical fiber (the wires that deliver your fiber optic internet) at ISS.
ZBLAN is made of a crystal lattice that is sensitive to Earth’s gravitational pull, resulting in imperfections. No gravity removes those imperfections (so this is one product that won’t be eagerly awaiting Boeing’s levitating 3D printer).
Furthering Space Exploration
That’s still not all for Made in Space. The company is also working with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems to create a 3D printer with robotic arms. Called Archinaut, the project will be installed in an external space station pod.
With technology like Archinaut, raw materials could be launched from Earth and coupled with parts created through 3D printing to build structures. This would allow engineers to develop structures that don’t need to be subjected to gravity and the stresses of launching.
The initial Archinaut will have only one arm. Future versions, however, could have multiple arms so the machine can remove parts from decommissioned spacecraft to build new ones.
Many Giant Leaps for Mankind
Most of these projects are years from usage. But if successful, they will drastically shape the future of the industry – and of space exploration.