Nov 22, 2016 | By Tess

With the International Space Station’s Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) in full swing, the concept of having a 3D printer in space is becoming increasingly familiar. Despite these advances, however, there are still a number of hurdles and challenges that must be met in order for additive manufacturing to be used to its full potential in the cosmos. Metal 3D printing, for instance, remains a difficult task, but one that could prove essential for maintaining equipment and creating parts necessary for journeys to Mars.

zero-gravity metal 3D printer with aluminum wire

Fortunately, some headway has been made on the metal 3D printing in space front, as a team of UK scientists from the University of Birmingham has developed a metal 3D printer that can work in zero gravity. The innovative 3D printer was recently tested at the European Space Agency (ESA) facilities in the “vomit comet” zero gravity simulation.

As Luke Carter, a researcher from the University of Birmingham explained, metal 3D printing was significantly more complicated to adapt to zero gravity environments than plastic extrusion 3D printers. “It’s challenging, metals are a different ball game,” he told The Times. These difficulties were owed to a number of factors, including restrained power requirements (the machine had to run on only 1300w), and the obvious issue of having metal powder (or worse: molten metal drops) floating around the spacecraft.

To overcome the issue of weightlessness, the scientists devised a 3D printer that uses aluminum wire in lieu of powders, which is fed into the machine, heated to just above its melting point, and extruded into a designated form, similar to how a plastic filament would be. As the printed aluminum cools, the layers are fused together by surface tension.

ISS Additive Manufacturing Facility

The recent test, in which the 3D printer was put onboard the ESA “vomit comet” aircraft, proved that the 3D printer did indeed work in zero-gravity environments. According to the researchers, however, this is just one step in their process, as making the printer viable for deep space missions, say to Mars, requires much more work.

“It starts to sound a bit sci-fi,” explained Carter. “We are targeting long-term space missions. Trips to Mars, a moon base. When we went to the Moon in the 60s and 70s we could take everything we needed. It was a camping trip. If you are going to Mars, it is an 18-month journey.” In other words, the metal 3D printer could be imperative to keeping the spacecraft fully supplied for the long journey, and could help the astronauts to maintain their living space.

For instance, Carter uses the example of a broken kitchen cupboard on the space craft: “You get to the point where you are floating around in the pod, someone opens a cupboard and the hinge snaps. Then you have it flapping around the whole journey.” Having a metal 3D printer on board could help fix problems such as this, seemingly trivial but ultimately problematic. More importantly though, the metal 3D printer could be used to create customized parts on the spot for unforeseen problems such as a broken radiation screen.

International Space Station

According to the scientists, the next big step in their project will be to bring a demonstrator 3D printer to the ISS. Having the printer on board would allow them to test their device further in a zero gravity environment and continue to advance its capabilities.



Posted in 3D Printer



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