When we think of space missions, the first thing that comes to mind is the voyage of a rocket, a spacecraft on its way to ISS. We could see the astronauts floating around in their fat spacesuits. Whether it is the suits or the other equipment on the shuttles, these things have to be created on Earth. However, researchers have been working on making them far away in space. It is increasingly becoming a vital aspect of space exploration. 3D printing could completely transform space travel by facilitating astronauts to create things in space as needed. They can make spare parts for fixes, custom kits for scientific experiments, and even items such as food and buildings.

Although the environment in space is extreme, with few resources to explore, there is a lot of dust flying around. As a matter of fact, with 3D printing technology, solid structures can be created from the collected microscopic particles and dust. The European Space Agency is working on 3D printing a center on the moon. NASA is funding a research project on 3D printed meals for astronauts. They aim to build a 3D printer for food that can be used in zero gravity. In order to realize the ambitions of colonizing Mars, we need to be able to manufacture there, preferably with local materials.

Made In Space was the first company to produce objects in an outer space environment effectively. In 2016, NASA contracted Made In Space to permanently set up a 3D printer on the ISS to create tools, gear, and other onboard objects that astronauts may possibly need. The exciting science of additive manufacturing technology is playing an essential role in humanity’s quest for interstellar industrialization.

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3D Printing in Space Vs 3D Printing on Earth?

Both have the same ultimate goal: to create something in real-time that meets the user’s needs. The significant difference is that we do not have the advantage of gravity in space to help get things wherever we want them to go. So, we have to seek the assistance of different forces to complete the deposition of material. Furthermore, there is no natural convection without gravity, such as the natural airflow movement, which can help with cooling. Therefore, the 3D printing approach needs to have a built-in temperature control setup to keep the parts from getting too hot or cold. Basically, you have to create an environment like Earth inside the 3D printer.

The significant advantage of zero-gravity manufacturing is that it allows us to build structures that would not be capable of supporting their own weight if they were erected on Earth. This opens exciting possibilities when it comes to the creation of structures. For instance, you could build a spider web structure that can stabilize and support its own mass in space. But if placed on the ground, it will collapse under its own weight. With 3D printing, you could build something like this directly in space, instead of making it on Earth and flying it there.

3D printer on the International Space Station

The 3D printer on the ISS is similar to microwave in size. However, the printer’s actual size depends on what you need to print and the available space. There are 3D printers that can create structures much larger than the devices themselves. They can function in the vacuum of space outside the International Space Station.

3D Printing in Space and Future of Space Exploration

3D printing could be used in future space explorations, such as the colonization of Mars. The point of creating settlements on Mars is to bring tools and live off the planet. If we want to inhabit Mars, it is imperative that we develop manufacturing ability there, preferably with local materials. Scientists have been developing manufacturing techniques in space in recent years that can be used outside of Earth. When we go to Mars, large versions of such 3D printers could be used to build the foundations of the human habitat there.

Moon Base To Be Printed in 3D

The creation of lunar habitats to facilitate exploration and research has been in the works for a few years. With the help of 3D printing technology, the European Space Agency hopes to one day be able to create a station on the moon. International architecture firm Foster + Partner has partnered with UK-based Monolite, a provider of 3D printers, to design such a structure.

3D printing in space
Credit: Made in Space

According to Foster + Partner, the center will be built around a dome assembled on Earth. The dome will act as a filter for gamma rays, solar pollution, and meteorite impacts. Two 3D printers will complete the construction on the moon, and the structure will be reinforced with raw materials that are found on site.

Monolite UK now reports that the company’s 3D printers can erect a complete base in two weeks. The subsequent generation is expected to be twofold as quick as this printer.

What Does Future Hold For 3D Printing in Space?

The processes and materials used must be of low mass and high performance with significant reliability of the product and no repair or maintenance required. In addition, very demanding environments require very small and complex shapes in the design process. 3D printing allows for the creation of functional designs and practical structures with innovative and enhanced shapes. The production sector can save, on average, over 50% of the mass and close to 95% of the mass in some parts. Thanks to printing technology, the sum of manufacturing actions in the process sequence have been reduced.

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Researchers have also found that using additive manufacturing technology to develop hardware during space missions can lessen their impact on the environment. This is influenced by several factors, including reducing the quantity of raw materials and transportation required, optimizing processing speed, reducing consumption of energy, and reducing the carbon footprint. Without a doubt, 3D printing is an advanced manufacturing technology of the future that will revolutionize human space travel.

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