Star Trekking: We Humans Can Beam Tools Into Space Without A Transporter

In the 1960s, we thought the best way of sending stuff between Earth and space was through a transporter. These days, turns out all it takes is an e-mail and a special 3-D printer. The first tool created in space, a rachet, was made last week on the International Space Station using plans beamed from Earth. Now, we get to see if it actually works.

The printer has been active for a few weeks, making test items that had already been done on Earth. But for this particular item, manufacturer Made In Space chose to take an additional risk: creating a tool from plans that were done almost at the last minute, similar to how a real mission would work when astronauts have a sudden need for a part.

“Made In Space uplinked a design which did not exist when the printer was launched. In fact the ratchet was designed, qualified, tested, and printed in space in less than a week,” the company wrote on its blog.

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore (Expedition 42 commander on the International Space Station) holds the first 3-D printed part made in space, which was created on Nov. 25, 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore (Expedition 42 commander on the International Space Station) holds the first 3-D printed part made in space, which was created on Nov. 25, 2014. Credit: NASA

And it wasn’t as simple as just sending up the plans and hoping for the best. NASA had to give the safety thumbs-up before it went up there. Also, the plans (once sent to the space station) were verified as okay to go by Made In Space engineers before the crew got the okay to print last week.

The rachet took about four hours to print in space, which is a heck of a lot faster than sitting around waiting for a cargo ship — especially when said ship is delayed, as what happened recently to the SpaceX Dragon that was supposed to launch on Friday (Dec. 19) and has now been pushed back to at least Jan. 6.

While the rachet could be of use for simple repairs in space, it won’t be staying up there long. Just as with all the other parts printed so far, it’s going to be sent back to Earth for analysis to make sure it can stand up to the rigors of a space mission. Made In Space will soon have a more robust printer going up to station, and wants to make sure all the kinks are worked out before then.

Source: Made In Space

“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”… How Scientists Replicated a Mars Meteorite


Captain Picard orders tea

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Who doesn’t remember that famous command by Captain Picard’s of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”? While no one’s yet invented a replicator that can brew a cup of tea out of thin air, scientists have taken in step in that direction by creating an amazing replica of a Martian meteorite using a 3D printer.

Without the fuss and expense of a sample retrieving mission to Mars, NASA scientists now have a realistic, true to life facsimile of the ‘Block Island’ meteorite discovered by the Opportunity Rover in 2009. Block Island, an iron-nickel meteorite similar to those found at Meteor Crater in Arizona, is the largest meteorite found on the Red Planet.

The real Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars, photographed by Opportunity's panoramic camera.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
The real Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars, photographed by Opportunity’s panoramic camera.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Measuring about two feet (60 cm) across, it’s about the size of picnic cooler and weighs an estimated 1,000 pounds. The replica’s made of plastic – you could tote it around like a … picnic cooler.

Analysis of Block Island’s composition using the rover’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer confirmed that it’s rich in iron and nickel. Scientists based the design of the plastic meteorite on detailed measurements and stereo images taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera.

Get out your red-blue plastic glasses to get a look at Block Island in stereo. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Get out your red-blue plastic glasses to get a look at Block Island in stereo. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover made a 360-degree study of the meteorite five years ago taking measurements and many stereo images. But because Opportunity couldn’t see every square inch of the rock, the missing data created holes in the computer model, making it a poor candidate for 3D printing.

Last summer, scientists got around that problem by filling in the missing data and building small scale models of Block Island. To build the life-sized rock, they created depth meshes of the meteorite’s surface from six positions, then combined them into a three-dimensional digital model, according to researcher Kris Capraro of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Researcher Kris Capraro (second from left) adds the finishing touches of realistic color to a model of the "Block Island" meteorite.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Researcher Kris Capraro (second from left) adds the finishing touches of realistic color to a model of the “Block Island” meteorite.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The printer built the meteorite from ABS plastic, the same material used in Lego bricks, with cord the width of the plastic line in your weed-whacker. One small problem remained before the replica could be executed – it was too big to fit in the printer’s building space. So researchers broke up the computer model of the meteorite into 11 sections. Printing took 305 hours and 36 minutes.

Researchers created each of 11 pieces in the 3D printer and glued them together to build the true-size model. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Researchers created each of 11 pieces in the 3D printer and glued them together to build the true-size model. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sections were assembled and then painted to match the real rock. Said Capraro: “it’s the next best thing to bringing back real Martian rock samples back to Earth.”

Scientists hope someday to use 3D printing to not only replicate more Mars rocks but terrains across the solar system.

NASA Looks at 3-D Food Printer for Star Trek-like Replicator

The International Space Station may soon have its very own Star Trek food replicator.

Earlier this week, NASA awarded a $125,000 six month grant to the Systems & Materials Research Cooperation to design a 3D printer capable of printing a pizza from 30-year shelf stable foodstuffs.

Founded by Anjan Contractor, SMRC built a basic food printer from a chocolate printer to win NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program in a trial video. The design is based on an open-source RepRap 3D printer.

Contractor and SMRC will begin construction on the pizza-printing prototype in two weeks. Pizza has been one item missing from astronauts menu for years. The 3D printer would “build-up” a pizza serving by first layering out the dough onto a heated plate then adding tomato sauce and toppings.

But this isn’t your mother’s pizza, as the proteins would be provided by cartridge injectors filled with organic base powders derived from algae, insects and grass.

Yummy stuff, to be sure!

Of course, one can see an immediate application of 3D food printing technology for long duration space missions. Contractor and SMRC envisions 3D food printing as the wave of the future, with the capacity to solve world hunger for a burgeoning human population.

Could a 3D food printer be coming to a kitchen near you?

Curiously, printing confectioneries and pet food pellets would be the simplest application of said technology. Printing a soufflé and crowned rack of lamb will be tougher. 3D printing technology has made great strides as of late, and RepRap has made a printer which is capable of printing itself. Those who fear the rise of Von Neumann’s self-replicating robots should take note…

Should we welcome or fear our self-replicating, pizza-bearing overlords?

The International Space Station is due for the delivery of its first 3D printer in 2014. This will give astros the capability to fabricate simple parts and tools onsite without requiring machining. Of course, the first question on our minds is: How will a 3D printer function in zero-g? Will one have tomato paste an insect parts flying about? Recent flights aboard a Boeing 727 by Made in Space Inc have been testing 3D printers in micro-gravity environments.

Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).
Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).

Further afield, 3D replicators may arrive on the Moon or Mars ahead of humans, building a prefab colony with raw materials available for colonists to follow.

Artist's conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).
Artist’s conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).

Will 3D food replicators pioneered by SMRC be a permanent fixture on crewed long duration space missions? Plans such as Dennis Tito’s Mars 2018 flyby and the one way Mars One proposal will definitely have to address the dietary dilemmas of hungry astronauts. Biosphere 2 demonstrated that animal husbandry will be impractical  on long term missions. Future Martian colonists will definitely eat much farther down the food chain to survive. SpaceX head Elon Musk has recently said in a Twitter response to PETA that he won’t be the “Kale Eating Overlord of Mars,” and perhaps “micro-ranching” of insects will be the only viable alternative to filet mignon on the Red Planet. Hey, it beats Soylent Green… and the good news is, you can still brew beer from algae!

Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).
Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).

Would YOU take a one way journey to Mars? Would you eat a bug to do it? It’ll be interesting to watch these 3D printers in action as they take to space and print America’s favorite delivery fast food. But it’s yet to be seen if home replicators will put Dominos Pizza out of business anytime soon. Perhaps they’ll only be viable if they can print a pizza in less than “30 minutes!”