Feb 5, 2019 | By Cameron

Nobody owns space. As such, it should be free to all. But it’s not. Only a few countries have access to Earth’s orbit and beyond. The reasons for this inequality relate to the high costs as well as the navigational capabilities required to deal with the sea of satellite debris that orbits the planet, but an MIT researcher expects that 3D printing will help level the playing field by enabling satellites to be 3D printed in orbit.

Danielle Wood runs the Space Enabled program at MIT’s Media Lab. The program aims to advance justice in Earth’s systems through designs enabled by space, such as satellite communication and Earth observation, technology transfer, and microgravity research. Nations benefit with access to those capabilities, but many nations don’t have that access because it’s very expensive to launch rockets, and without advanced orbital tracking systems, it’s nearly impossible to chart a trajectory through the existing web of satellites and the debris from satellites that stopped operating decades ago. An estimated 5,000 objects larger than three feet orbit Earth, along with tens of thousands of smaller objects.

"Early space actors could take sort of a lazy approach to satellite engineering," Wood said to Space.com. She’s referring to the fact that they didn’t have to factor in dodging all of that debris, nor did they have to plan for and execute the de-orbiting maneuvers expected of modern satellite engineers, which is why the debris problem even exists. In short, the lackadaisical approach of a couple early space exploring nations (namely the US and Russia) is now making it more difficult for everyone to get satellites and astronauts into space. Wood runs that point home, remarking, “The way we operate in space, it matters to everyone on Earth.”

Her vision includes 3D printing satellites in orbit, which would greatly reduce the barriers to entry as much of the fuel costs would be mitigated. That would be doubly true if Wood’s other idea is implemented: designing satellites to break down into reusable components after their mission is complete. Satellites could be maneuvered to orbital recycling facilities that melt them down into 3D printer filament that could be used to fabricate more satellites. “Our current approach mainly depends on doing a design for a satellite that’s complete on Earth,” Wood said. “We can imagine a future in which there are basically small factories available in space.”

The International Space Station serves as a good proof of concept as it was used to launch satellites for Kenya and Mauritius. The creators of those satellites didn’t need to worry about launch schedules, meaning they could direct their resources to the mission at hand. 3D printing has already been field tested in zero-gravity environments, and 3D printing can handle electric circuits, so it’s a foregone conclusion that a satellite will soon be 3D printed in space.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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