As I’ve mentioned in several episodes now, humanity is in a bit of a transition period, a time when it makes sense to launch material up and out of Earth’s gravity well into orbit, and beyond. But it’s really expensive, costing up to $10,000 per pound you want in orbit, and 10 times if you want it on the Moon.
But over the coming decades, more and more of our space-based infrastructure will be built in space, manufactured out of materials that were mined in space.
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.
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.
Here’s the 22nd-century version of breaking the surly bonds of Earth: NASA and private company Made In Space have just collaborated on the first 3-D printed part in space, ever.
The milestone yesterday (Nov. 25) is a baby step towards off-Earth manufacturing, but the implications are huge. If these testbeds prove effective enough, eventually we can think of creating these parts in other destinations such as the Moon, or an asteroid, or even Mars.
“We look at the operation of the 3-D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth,” stated Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space — the company that developed the printer.
There are still kinks to be worked out, however. The “part adhesion” on the tray after the piece was created had a bond that was mightier than controllers anticipated, which could mean that bonding is different in microgravity. A second calibration coupon should be created shortly as controllers make adjustments to the process.
We’ll see several of these “test coupons” manufactured in the next few months and then sent back to Earth for more detailed analysis. Meanwhile, we have two more 3-D printers to look forward to in space: one created by the Italians that should arrive while their citizen, Samantha Cristoforetti, is still on station (she just arrived a few days ago) and a second one created by Made In Space that is supposed to commercialize the process.
If additive manufacturing takes off, so to speak, it could reduce shipping costs from Earth to the International Space Station because controllers could just send up a set of instructions to replace a part or tool. But NASA should move quickly to test this stuff out, according to a recent National Research Council report; the station is approved for operations only until 2020 (so far), which leaves only about five years or so to do testing before agencies possibly move to other destinations.
Need a part on the International Space Station? You’re going to have to wait for that. That is, wait for the next spaceship to arrive with the critical tool to make a repair, or replace something that broke. You can imagine how that slows down NASA’s desire for science on the orbiting laboratory.
Enter the first orbiting “machine shop”: a 3-D printer that was just installed in the station’s Columbus laboratory this week. If the printer works as planned, astronauts will be able to make simple things based on instructions from the ground. Over time, the agency hopes this will save time and money, and reduce the need to rely on shipments from Earth. And keep an eye out in 2015: two other 3-D printers are scheduled to join it.
As NASA aims to send astronauts to an asteroid and perhaps to Mars, the need to manufacture parts on site is critical. Sending a valve to Phobos isn’t an easy proposition. Much better that future crews will make stuff on the spot, and NASA says the space station will be a good spot to test this kind of stuff out. Adding motivation is a National Research Council report from this summer urging NASA to start 3-D printing testing as soon as possible, since the station (as of yet) is only funded by all partners through 2020. Negotiations are ongoing to extend that to 2024.
“Additive manufacturing with 3-D printers will allow space crews to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth and lead to sustainable, self-reliant exploration missions where resupply is difficult and costly,” stated Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s advanced explorations systems division at NASA headquarters in Washington. “The space station provides the optimal place to perfect this technology in microgravity.”
But don’t get too excited yet; astronauts aren’t going to make screwdrivers right away. The first step will be calibrating the printer. Then, the first files (mainly test coupons) will be printed and sent back to Earth to make sure they meet up to standards compared to identical samples printed on the ground with the same printer.
And guess what: there is yet another printer that will be launched to the space station next year. Called the POP3D Portable On-Board Printer, the European Space Agency promises that the tiny machine — less than half the diameter of a basketball — will be able to print a plastic part in about half an hour.
The prime contractor for this printer is Italian company Altran. POP3D will reach the station in the first half of next year, ideally while Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti is still doing her Futura mission in space (which starts this Sunday, if the launch schedule holds.)
A 3-D printer intended for the International Space Station has passed its NASA certifications with flying colors — earning the device a trip to space sooner than expected. The next Dragon spacecraft, scheduled to launch in August, will carry the Made In Space printer on board.
“Passing the final tests and shipping the hardware are significant milestones, but they ultimately lead to an even more meaningful one – the capability for anyone on Earth to have the option of printing objects on the ISS. This is unprecedented access to space,” stated Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer.
The device was originally supposed to launch not on this next Dragon flight, but the one after that. But it recently completed several tests looking at everything from vibration to human design to electromagnetic interference, and was deemed enough of a “minimal risk” to get moved up a slot.
This 3-D printer will be the first to be used in orbit. Officials have already printed out several items on the ground to serve as a kind of “ground truth” to see how well the device works when it is installed on the space station. It will be put into a “science glovebox” on the International Space Station and print out 21 demonstration parts, such as tools.
“The next phase will serve to demonstrate utilization of meaningful parts such as crew tools, payload ancillary hardware, and potential commercial applications such as cubesat components,” Made In Space added in a statement.
Once fully functional, the 3-D printer is supposed to reduce the need to ship parts from Earth when they break. This will save a lot of time, not to mention launch costs, the company said. It could also allow astronauts to manufacture new tools on the fly when “unforeseen situations” arise in orbit.
The joke about home renovation projects is it takes at least three trips to the hardware store to finish the work. In space, of course, spare parts are a lot harder to come by, meaning astronauts might have to wait for a spacecraft shipment, if, say, the toilet breaks. (Yes, this yucky situation has happened before.)
Some spare parts could be manufactured in space as early as next year, though, providing a 3-D printer passes all the preliminary steps. It recently got a big boost in that direction after passing its microgravity tests successfully, but there are still environmental tests to come, said the company that was behind the work.
“The 3-D printer we’re developing for the ISS is all about enabling astronauts today to be less dependent on Earth,” stated Noah Paul-Gin, the lead for the microgravity experiment.
“The version that will arrive on the ISS next year has the capability of building an estimated 30% of the spare parts on the station, as well as various objects such as specialty tools and experiment upgrades.”
The firm tested the printer during four flights that, in part, simulated microgravity. They were on a specially designed airplane that flies parabolas, meaning it climbs and then briefly simulates, roller-coaster style, microgravity during the plunge before climbing again. (Each microgravity test is only about 30 seconds long.)
“The unique challenges posed by off-Earth 3-D printing require technology and hardware specifically adapted for space. In these microgravity tests, Made in Space assessed layer adhesion, resolution and part strength in the microgravity environment,” the company added.
After Made in Space received a contract for the 3D printer a couple of years ago, it flew three prototype versions that collectively were in microgravity 32 times.
If this printer makes it to space and performs well, it will add to the excitement of 3-D printing that has been swirling around the space community lately.
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.
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.
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!
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!”