3D printing is about to take a small step for man and a giant leap for manufacturing. A printer designed by a Silicon Valley-based startup called Made in Space will be carried into orbit aboard SpaceX Five later this summer.
There, in microgravity conditions similar to those on the International Space Station, the printer will create a series of objects as part of a proof of concept demonstration. Made in Space is staying mum about exactly what will be printed, but regardless of what it makes, the results will represent a move toward a new era of space exploration.
“The notion that you don’t have to be dependent on what you brought with you, and that you could become a self-sufficient enterprise, is very exciting,” says Made in Space’s marketing and communications manager, Grant Lowery.
At the moment, scientists and astronauts are utterly dependent on the tools and materials that come with them on their expeditions. Bringing materials into space costs about $50,000 a pound, and you can’t exactly order replacements on Amazon if something breaks or goes missing.
As a result, the aerospace industry is aggressively exploring the possibilities of 3D printing.
An Austin, Texas-based company called the Systems and Materials Research Consultancy won money from NASA to study the prospect of printing food, and researchers at the University of Southern California are investigating a process called contour crafting, which would enable robots to print structures like lunar bases using little more than the moon’s soil.
But manufacturing things that will be used in space exploration is very different from printing a paperweight in your MakerBot.
“In the aerospace industry,” cautions Eric Baumann, an aerospace engineer with NASA, “people get hurt if you fail.”
Unlike the materials currently used to build rockets, space ships or other tools used in space, 3D printing materials (and the machines that make them) have not yet been subjected to an adequate range of tests.
Unanswered questions abound
Can you use a printer’s powder if it’s exposed to moisture? What if it sits out for too long? How far apart are its molecules after the powder’s been “printed”?
After all that research and testing is done, researchers could start manufacturing things. Potentially even with raw materials found in space and on the moon. Lowery says scientists are already figuring out how to use regolith, a kind of space dust that’s found all over the surfaces of the moon and Mars, as a 3D printing material.
“We see it as the foundation of an ecosystem in many ways,” Lowery says. “It should provide the ability to build small parts and tools, but larger structures too. One day, we could be seeing large-scale solar-powered space arrays.”
At that point, the sky’s no longer the limit.
Original story by Max Willens, published on Forbes PTCVoice. Image courtesy of Made in Space.