While down here there’s room for debate about the suitability of 3D printing for anything more serious than rapid prototyping, few would say the same once you’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth. With 3D printing, astronauts would have the ability to produce objects and tools on-demand from a supply of inert raw building materials. Instead of trying to pack every conceivable spare part for a mission to Mars, replacements (assuming a little forward thinking on the part of the spacecraft designers) can be made to order out of the stock of raw plastic or metal kept on-board. The implications of such technology for deep space travel or off-world settlement simply cannot be overstated.
In the more immediate future, 3D printing can be used to rapidly develop and deploy unmanned spacecraft. Tiny satellites (referred to as CubeSats) could be printed, assembled, and deployed by astronauts already in orbit. Innovations such as these could allow science missions to be planned and executed in months instead of years, and at a vastly reduced cost.
Early Successes in Space Printing
You may not realize it, but as you read this (well, assuming you aren’t reading this past 2025 or so), a 3D printer is in orbit above our planet. Designed and built by Made In Space, and launched aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule in 2014, the International Space Station’s 3D printer has already printed a number of test pieces that have verified the fundamental concepts of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing in orbit. In other words, the same technology used in our run of the mill desktop 3D printers has now been used to turn plastic filament into legitimately useful parts and tools for a manned orbital spacecraft.
For NASA, the success of this first-generation 3D printer is a huge win. In the future, it should be possible to use this same technology to limit the number of spare parts and tools that need to be painstakingly cataloged and packed for every human mission into space. As NASA is currently turning its attention to a return to the Moon (either on the surface, or in orbit around it) and eventually onto Mars, this could be a huge logistical boon. NASA has even awarded Made in Space a contract for developing a filament recycling device, which could crush up printed objects and turn them back into filament; further reducing the need for resupply missions from Earth.
Developing a Printable Spacecraft
While NASA is largely interested in the viability of 3D printing objects off-world, other groups such as the European Space Agency, are looking into how 3D printed parts can be utilized in the construction of spacecraft. Using 3D printed parts can not only lower the cost and complexity of developing new vehicles here on Earth, but also directly benefits from work being done to print in space.
By developing printable frames for CubeSats, the ESA hopes to one day enable the manufacture of these small craft in orbit. Rather than subjecting these fragile spacecraft to the mechanically stressful launch from Earth, these CubeSats could be assembled from modular components and printed frame members by the astronauts themselves. Once assembled they can be “launched” by literally throwing them out of an orbital installation such as the International Space Station. Printed out of polyether ether ketone, better known in 3D printing circles as PEEK, these CubeSat frames also include conductive elements to reduce the amount of wiring required to connect the various subsystems contained within the satellite.
Thanks to the precipitous drop in launch prices (due to increased commercial competition from the likes of SpaceX) and the relatively low cost of CubeSat hardware, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is no longer the domain of world superpowers alone. Private industry and universities are now able to launch and operate their own orbital satellites, and these groups are also eager to investigate the use of 3D printed components to reduce the cost and development time of these small space vehicles.
A team from Capitol Technology University in Maryland are in the final stages of developing their CubeSat, the Coordinated Applied Capitol Technology University Satellite (CACTUS-1), which aims to demonstrate several cost-saving measures when it launches on the NASA ElaNa XX mission in 2018. It uses off-the-shelf components such as a Raspberry Pi and Iridium satellite phone modem to accomplish tasks which in the past would have been done with expensive custom hardware. The primary science payload on CACTUS-1 is called TRAPSat, a subsystem designed to capture orbital micro-debris in a block of…
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