When a tool on the space station breaks or goes missing these days, astronauts must often wait for months for the next supply mission to launch from Earth. The alternative is to ship up multiple spare parts, but the increased mass requires more fuel to lift off, and thus costs more money. A 3D printer could change all that, advocates say. The 3D printer sent to the International Space Station (ISS) will be able to utilize a variety of materials to craft items that the astronauts need, in a more timely manner.
Made in Space Upside Down
This battery case, created with a material called Polyetherketoneketone, is the first 3-D-printed component Goddard has flown. Developed under a university-industry partnership, the part was demonstrated during a sounding-rocket mission testing a thermal-control device developed with R&D funding. As an example, Werkheiser cited an unassuming part known as an extraction tool, which she said could be printed in under an hour. The part would have worked on the space station's Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), which was out of commission for six months in 2002 while astronauts waited for the needed part to be sent up on the next space shuttle flight. Another potential application would involve cubesats, tiny, low-cost satellites that hitch rides into space on other launches. According to Werkheiser, astronauts on the ISS could potentially print out and assemble many such satellites and manually launch them from the space station.
The first 3D printer in space will be small enough to fit inside the MSG, and crewmembers aboard the orbiting lab will put their hands inside the glove box to operate it. NASA hopes the project demonstrates that 3D printing in space is as robust and reliable as it is on the ground, laying the foundation for a new in-space manufacturing industry. Made in Space has already tested some versions of the 3D printer during parabolic airplane flights, which produce short periods of microgravity. A long-term trial aboard the space station is the next step. "We're starting with plastic with this first printer, but we will be moving to metals and other types of materials," Werkheiser said. She pointed out that lessons learned from microgravity applications would be applicable on Earth, particularly for remote military outposts and on submarines.
A 3D printer could be a key piece of equipment for missions traveling beyond Earth's orbit, advocates of the technology say. Rather than packing spare parts and materials that might be needed, astronauts could use the printer to produce what was needed. "For space station, it will decrease risk, decrease cost, and increase efficiency," Werkheiser said. "For longer-term missions for exploration, this is absolutely critical technology."
NASA is already building some of its customized spacecraft and instrument parts using 3D printing, and someday soon, astronauts might even make toolsand replacement by 3D printing them in space. NASA's Space TechnologyMission Directorate has launched several programs to create prototypes of tools for current or future missions using 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, a manufacturing technique that uses Computer-Aided Design (CAD) models to build objects layer-by-layer out of plastic, metal or other materials. "With additive manufacturing, we have an opportunity to push the envelope on how this technology might be used in zero gravity — how we might ultimately manufacture in space." LaNetra Tate, the advanced-manufacturing principal investigator for the directorate's Game Changing Development Program said in a statement.
Pin It This battery case, created with a material called Polyetherketoneketone, is the first 3-D-printed component Goddard has flown. Developed under a university-industry partnership, the part was demonstrated during a sounding-rocket mission testing a thermal-control device developed with R&D funding. NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has already flown a 3D printed battery case on a sounding-rocket mission test, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., used 3D-printed components for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines. Marshall is also working with the Silicon Valley start-up Made In Space, which as mentioned before, plans to fly a 3D printer to the International Space Station in October. "We're not driving the additive manufacturing train, industry is," Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at Goddard said in a statement. "But NASA has the ability to get on-board to leverage it for our unique needs." NASA is part of a team of government agencies investing in a public-private partnership called America Makes (formerly the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) whose goal is to incorporate 3D printers into mainstream U.S. manufacturing. Housekeeping ChipPin It This is a close-up of the housekeeping chip that was bonded onto an electronics board as part of an investigation into the effectiveness of 3-D manufacturing for electronics applications. "This effort really goes beyond one center," Matt Showalter, who is overseeing Goddard's various 3D printing efforts, said in a statement. NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., has developed a green manufacturing technique that uses a computer controlled electron-beam gun to build metal structures that could make parts or tools within hours. NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, in collaboration with Aerojet Rocketdyne of West Palm Beach, Fla., recently built and tested an engine injector for the RL-10 rocket. Meanwhile, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is researching how to build 3D habitats and others structures on other planets using soil, or regolith. "It's in the national interest to collaborate with other institutions," Showalter said. "This is a powerful tool and we need to look at how we can implement it."