The US Space Agency says this will be the first crucial step of assessing the feasibility of manufacturing tools and spare parts using Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) in a zero gravity environment.
Normally in all missions that take place in space, astronauts use tools and spare parts that have already been transported and stored at the International Space Station (ISS).
However to sustain the missions, a fresh supply of tools is always required especially when their stores at the ISS dwindle or when some spare parts get lost or broken.
It usually takes quite a long duration before the tools needed are transported from the earth to space for the missions to effectually continue. As a result, a lot of missions get delayed in the process. According to NASA, the space agency envisions a time when astronauts could make any tools they require in space eliminating the need for supplies to be made on planet Earth.
It is for this reason than NASA hired technology start-up Made in Space to build a specialised 3D printer that could make additive manufacturing possible in space.
The microwave oven-sized printer will be launched at the International Space Station where several demos will be carried out to prove whether it is practical to use it to manufacture necessary space tools. The printer will be transported through a space flight to the ISS early next year.
Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space, is the person responsible for ensuring that the 3D printer for space becomes a success. The printer will be first expected to stand up to lift-off vibrations during transportation. Secondly, during the testing phase, scientists will assess its ability to function properly while placed in enclosed space stations.
What Benefits Will This Have?
The Zero-G Experiment, as it is now commonly referred to, will determine how reliable 3D printing is when being used in zero gravity environments. The question is how will the success of this experiment be important? What is the end game that NASA is eyeing?
Well apparently, there is a lot that stands to be gained if NASA manages to successfully launch this first 3D printer into space. Top on the list of upsides is the great cost reduction of resupply missions. Since most tools and spare parts will be manufactured at space stations, the need to finance resupply missions will be immensely mitigated.
There will also be fewer worries about lost or broken tools, which is sometimes quite inexorable, because astronauts would be well capable of manufacturing any required tools on demand.
If this giant leap by NASA turns out to be successful, any future space missions will also now be less time consuming than in the past. Space missions often take a lot of time because of the long durations it takes for a resupply mission to be made. Taking into account that most of the tools and parts that are often supplied can be made in a few hours or even minutes through 3D printing, the technology will simply save astronauts a whole lot of time that is usually wasted when waiting for a fresh supply.
Not to mention maintaining the required cargo weight is normally a concern whenever NASA is making any new supply. However with 3D printing taking care of the supplies of most of the tools astronauts need, these would be the least of worries.
In addition, presently there is a huge dependence of space missions on the earth for Food and Other Supplies. With the new space 3D printer, space missions will be entirely self-sufficient. This will not only reduce the resupply demands but will also reduce the number of tools and equipment required every time a new mission is launched.
Basically if everything goes according to plan, space missions will become safer and a lot more reliable as most if not all the things required will be quickly manufactured according to demand.
Current NASA Challenges
Albeit Made in Space expresses tremendous optimism in ensuring that everything falls into place as anticipated, there are a few challenges that stand on the way.
For instance, all the standard 3D printers are made and designed in a way that they can only function properly within earthly environments. The environment in space is way different from the conditions here on earth. So will the printer withstand the harsh conditions that it is going to encounter in Space?
Made in Space and NASA are faced with the taxing challenge of designing the printer in a way that it can still function impeccably in the zero gravity surroundings of space.
On top of that, since it will be made on earth, transporting it off to space and launching it there will make the machine undergo massive strain. There are additionally other numerous challenges of functioning in an orbit which Made in Space has to consider such as:
- Limited power availability
- Air pressure and temperature variations
- Microgravity surroundings and conditions
There is no doubt space missions will be way better and more effective if the 3D printer is found to be capable to function in space.
Aaron Kemmer is quick to add that in the Apollo 13 mission tragedy where the astronauts had to use plastic bags, duct tape and a manual cover to create an improvised carbon dioxide filter; they would have spent less time and effort to create the same using 3D printing.
Therefore additive manufacturing can become very helpful in enabling astronauts to manage emergency situations better during space missions.
After being launched, the now famous and anxiously awaited 3D printer for space will first use normal plastic filaments to fabricate tools as it will still be in the demonstration phase. Once the usage and reliability of the printer has been affirmed, stronger 3D printing materials such as laser-melted titanium or nickel-chromium powders will begin to be used so as to make stronger more robust tools and spare parts.
See related article about NASAs Intention to Print Using Moon Dust as a Material.
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