Aug 11, 2017 | By David

The future of 3D printing should see it conquering not just the manufacturing industry here on Earth, but outer space as well. NASA has been implementing the technology for various purposes for many years now, and a significant breakthrough was recently achieved by one of its partners in space exploration, California-based company Made in Space. The Technology Demonstration Mission (TDM) project Archinaut, which is intended to 3D print complex hardware and supersized structures in space, was successfully tested in a simulated outer space environment.

Made in Space operates from Moffett Field,  an abandoned naval air base that houses NASA’s Ames Research Center as well as a cluster of other similar space-focused tech startups. Several private companies are beginning to assist with and even take over some of NASA’s activities, in a growing trend towards the commercialization of space exploration. When the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, billionaire Elon Musk’s Space X company stepped in to continue its work, and Axiom and Bigelow are both vying to replace the International Space Station program, which NASA will be retiring in 2024.

NASA’s Archinaut TDM project is being spearheaded by Made in Space in a collaboration that pools the talent of both organizations, with a view to eventually taking the technology into orbit in 2020. This first successful large-scale test in a micro-gravity environment represents a major milestone, and a step towards achieving that goal. The Archinaut project makes use of Made in Space’s innovative Extended Structure Additive Manufacturing Machine, and the test was conducted in a vacuum chamber in the Engineering Evaluation Laboratory at the Ames Research Center.

Archinaut is essentially a 3D printer with robotic arms, which allow it to autonomously assemble major structures out of the pieces it prints. The test saw it successfully produce large beams and other parts, of the kind that could be used to assemble a space station or exploration vehicle. After another major test planned for 2018, the next step would be trialling the technology in space.

Manufacturing in space could have a huge range of potential benefits and advantages, not just for space exploration and settlement but also for industries back here on Earth, and 3D printing will have a major role to play in its growth. The use of the technology means that space missions could become increasingly autonomous and independent of human participation, as well as easier and more cost-effective due to requiring fewer initial resources at launch.

"Instead of launching a rocket with a complete vehicle crammed on board, what if we just launch feedstock -- raw material -- and do all manufacturing and assembly in space?" said Eric Joyce, Archinaut project manager for Made In Space Inc. "All the constraints go away, and rockets become more efficient at delivering cargo to space."

After reaching a target destination, a robotic 3D printer could print out and assemble all the equipment it needs, on-site, to carry out a variety of different tasks and experiments. This could even extend to the production of more robotic 3D printers, and this kind of fully self-replicating technology would enable the exponential growth of outer space developments, perhaps leading to the autonomous construction of settlements on the Moon or Mars.

3D printing tests are also being carried out using the materials native to these environments, with a view to producing technology that would be entirely self-sufficient and capable of building useful items and structures using just the resources that were locally available. Made in Space, for example, is currently trialling the 3D printing of bricks using a synthetic material that simulates the ‘topsoil’ on Mars, also known as ‘Martian regolith material’.

Starting in November, the company will also be starting in-space production of optical fiber, using a rare glass-like material known as ZBLAN. This material will enable the fibers to conduct a signal up to 100 times stronger than regular silicon fibers, and it is much easier to manufacture with ZBLAN in space than on Earth, as gravity causes unwanted to crystals to form during the process.

“In-space manufacturing and assembling has been the stuff of science fiction and the dream of the industry for almost the entire existence of the industry,” said Made in Space CEO Andrew Rush. “But now, for the first time, we’re making these really transformative steps toward making that a reality.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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