Monday, November 22, 2010

3D Printers Could Print Space Station Parts in Orbit

  • Space stations and satellite components printed from in-orbit 3D printers might be the future of space exploration. At least, that’s the hope of one new tech company.
  • Space stations and satellite components printed from in-orbit 3D printers might be the future of space exploration. At least, that’s the hope of one new tech company.

    Lately at Smarter Technology, we’ve been blogging about the 3D printers that seem to be the hottest tech trend here on Earth. Now, a new company hopes to bring this technology to space, with orbiting 3D printers that churn out inexpensive parts for space stations, satellites and more.
    The company, called Made in Space, hopes to launch 3D printers into space, where they could save time and increase the efficiency of aeronautical research. During a conference entitled “Space Manufacturing 14: Critical Technologies for Space Settlement,” held at NASA’s research center in Ames, Calif., the company discussed its ideas and plans.
    "It makes perfect sense that we should build everything for space, in space," said Jason Dunn, one of the founders of Made in Space.
    Dunn explained that products made in space would not need to withstand the g-forces and vibrations produced during launches from Earth. The mass of individual components could thus be reduced by nearly 30 percent—translating to lower costs and less use of valuable resources. A reduced mass also means less fuel would be needed.
    All that engineers on Earth would need to launch is the feedstock for the printers—material Dunn describes as “gray goo,” which can be supplied from metal, plastic and other materials.
    Orbiting printers could also allow for the recycling of broken parts. If a component were to break down, it could be melted back into feedstock and reprinted in space. This process would save money and time by reducing trips to and from Earth.

    Thinking beyond the orbit, the company envisions using 3D printers to help establish colonies on the moon, Mars and other planets. Printers could help build greenhouse structures, buildings and other necessary extraterrestrial infrastructure.
    Because some 3D printers are already able to use concrete, Adam Ellsworth, a scientific adviser with Made in Space, thinks that lunar regolith—the soil found on the moon—could work as feedstock for the printers. Metallic sources can also be found on the moon and other planets.
    "You can just bring the files of the tools, and the files of the parts," Dunn said.
    According to Ellsworth, the company has already succeeded in printing space-grade plastic components. The next step will be to test how 3D printers perform in zero gravity, which Made in Space hopes to undertake in the next six months. To create a weightless environment, the company may use suborbital crafts currently under development.
    If the printers are successful in zero gravity, the company will begin in-orbit testing, possibly onboard the International Space Station.
    3D printers have long been known for their ability to print small parts. The company is now looking to prove their agility at printing larger components, such as long beams.
    "There's definitely a lot of interest in what we're trying to do," Dunn said. Made in Space, already attracting interest from both the public and private sectors, is currently seeking investors.

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