In addition to putting humans back on the Moon in a few years, NASA is laying the groundwork for a manned mission to Mars. NASA has been partnering with private, third-party companies to make this happen in less time for a lower cost. Private companies are working fast to innovate NASA technology, going so far as to cover a quarter of development costs—saving taxpayer money.
As part of its third-party partnerships, NASA is exploring in-space 3D printing. In-space 3D printing is expected to be a game-changer for space exploration. As it stands today, NASA sends spacecraft into space largely assembled. This is more dangerous and difficult to get off Earth, and it also limits what we can do with the craft in space.
3D printers can make space travel cheaper, faster, and safer.
These printers work by melding metallic powder with a laser beam to create objects. NASA used a form of 3D printing as early as the 1980s, but today, it’s far more advanced. In fact, most 3D printers can surpass traditional construction methods.
NASA and Made In Space
NASA realized the need to have 3D printers in space with 3D printing becoming more available and affordable. That’s why the space agency partnered with California company Made In Space to get 3D printers on spacecraft.
NASA granted a $73.7 million contract to Made In Space with the goal of seeing how small spacecraft can 3D print craft components in space.
In 2016, Made In Space did a demo of the technology in the NASA Ames Research Center facility, which mimics space conditions with a thermal vacuum chamber. The test was a success and proved that the equipment could withstand the conditions of space.
In the years since, Made In Space has honed its technology for tests in low-Earth orbit. NASA plans to release the spacecraft Archinaut One with Made In Space 3D printers aboard in 2022.
Once Archinaut One reaches low-Earth orbit, the small craft will 3D print two large beams that will jut out from the side of the spacecraft. If all goes well, these beams will support a large solar array on the sides of the craft. This will generate five times more solar power, which is a true feat, considering the small size of Archinaut One.
The benefits of 3D printing
While the Archinaut One mission sounds exciting, why does NASA care so much about 3D printing? Why can’t we stick to traditional construction?
Traditional construction may work on Earth, but it’s inefficient for deep space exploration. And if NASA wants to get humans to Mars, it has to think outside the box. There are 3 reasons NASA invests in 3D printing.
- Better spacecraft
- Reduced risk to astronauts
- Save time and money
Without 3D printing, NASA has to build its vehicles almost completely on Earth. That means it’s more difficult to transport sensitive equipment like satellites or telescopes. We also can’t use large power systems, like solar panels, on smaller crafts with this process.
3D printed spacecraft components are lighter and stronger. Because they’re lighter, they also improve fuel efficiency. That means spacecraft can go further on less fuel. If spacecraft components require repairs or replacements, 3D printing can quickly churn out parts, extending the life of the vehicle.
NASA’s primary focus is on protecting human life. Every time astronauts conduct a spacewalk on craft like the ISS, they put their lives in danger. 3D printing would create an infrastructure that limits spacewalks, keeping astronauts safely inside the craft.
Time and money are real barriers to innovation and exploration. 3D printed components don’t require tooling or molding, turning prints around in less time than traditional construction.
3D printing can even reduce the number of parts required for an object, saving time and reducing cost. In some cases, 3D printing can reduce total parts from 80 to just 3. On average, 3D printing cuts costs by a whopping 40%, which puts more funds in the hands of researchers to make more innovation possible.
The future of in-space manufacturing
3D printing is the future. This technology is affordable, fast, and efficient. Thanks to 3D printing, NASA will soon be able to do construction in space, speeding up our inevitable path to the Red Planet, Mars.