Humans are a creature of exploration and have been exploring in their nature.
From the moment man first set foot on the moon in 1969, his ambition to explore other places has only continued to increase. We now have a permanent station in space known as the International Space Station, and the subsequent dream of conquering and living on other planets such as Mars.
To make each space mission successful, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the world’s number one body in charge of all technology and science that relates to air and space encourages astronauts to pack everything they may consider important.
While this helps to ensure that the astronauts have whatever they need, it can be terribly expensive (costing about $10,000 to transport just a pound of cargo from the ground to low Earth orbit) as well as lead to waste of materials that are packed yet never used.
To overcome this challenge in 2014, NASA began an initiative known as the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR), an initiative that gave birth to the first 3D printer.
What are 3D Printers?
3D printers are a device which uses a fused filament fabrication process to feed a thread of plastic or polymer through a heated extruder, placing it layer by layer onto a tray in order to create a three-dimensional object. The process is very similar to how a hot glue gun works.
Currently, 3D printers use printing plastics such as the Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), the same material used in creating Lego objects to create basic tools.
It has evolved into an Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF); a 6x6x6-inch box that works perfectly under zero gravity using multi-materials to manufacture objects that measure exactly 6 inches in length, width, and height.
The first object ever produced in the ISS by a 3D printer was a wrench. Subsequently, other components such as a part of an antenna, an adaptor, a part that serves as a connection between two SPHERES, as well as free-flying robots were manufactured.
In the future, NASA plans to improve 3D printing to produce metals (such as aluminium, steel, and titanium) and electronics.
In addition, NASA plans to introduce a refabricator to the printing process to allow astronauts to reuse the same material for manufacturing.
3D Printing Benefits
It currently costs about $10,000 to transport a pound of cargo from the ground to the ISS. This is very expensive especially when you consider that the space station requires around 29,000 pounds of hardware units for replacements.
3D printing cuts away all these expenses allowing astronauts to print out whatever tool they need whenever they need them.
Of the 29,000 pounds of replacement units on-board the ISS, it is impossible that the astronauts would have a need for all of them at once. This means that some of these materials never get used resulting in damages that lead to wastage.
3D printing offers the opportunity of carrying only what astronauts need, and producing the rest when needed. This is a more effective option since the manufacturing process only takes a few hours.
A Better Chance at Long Duration Exploration
A journey to the ISS is one thing, and a journey to other planets is another. If carrying a load to the ISS which is only 200 miles away from the earth is considered a difficult process, imagine how difficult it would be to move the same load on a journey to a different planet?
3D printing lightens the burden. It allows astronauts to travel as light as possible, and to create the necessary tools when needed.
Manufacturing in space, made easier by 3D printers, removes many of the encumbrances associated with space travels.
What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning as these capacities will increase as we make strides in machine learning and advanced signal processing technologies.