In order for NASA to genuinely think that a trip to Mars is a possibility sometime in the 2030s, the agency will be forced to look at the potential for 3-D printing in space.
NASA’s “Made in Space”
NASA has already begun funding a startup that is looking to begin producing the first functioning zero gravity 3-D printers. While the company “Made in Space” already has a prototype at the International Space Station, a new model is expected to launch to the ISS on March 23, 2016.
In theory, the new model with allow astronauts to make a spare part as well craft experiments while in orbit.
“You can bring us a USB stick with your file, and we can digitally send it to space,” says Andrew Rush, chief executive of Made In Space, the NASA-funded start-up developing the technology.
“Via 3D printing we can make that object and completely avoid putting it on a rocket.”
That’s key as rocket launches are hardly convenient, but while most of the systems are redundant, waiting on a spare part is not only dangerous but costly with a single ounce costing thousands of dollars. Resupply missions must be carefully put together to secure the cargo and keep the weight of the payload evenly distributed.
With 3-D printers, NASA would simply be shipping the raw materials required to fuel the printer.
“The space environment is a very valuable and unique environment,” Mr. Rush told the BBC. “We can make things that would just be impossible to create on Earth.”
Even grander 3-D printing and space manufacturing
“This new manufacturing process really opened the design space and allowed for part geometries that would be impossible with traditional machining or casting methods,” said David Eddleman, a member of the 3-D printing team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in a recent press release. “For the valve designs on this engine, we used more efficient structures in the piece parts that resulted in optimized performance.”
In December, engineers at NASA tested 75 parts of a rocket engine that it had 3-D printed. While the injectors, valves and other parts didn’t look like engine parts they did the job at the end of the day.
NASA announced in December that engineers had successfully printed and tested 75 percent of the parts required for a rocket engine, including valves, turbopumps, and injectors. The resulting pieces do not look like traditional engine parts, but they work at least as well.
“What matters is that the parts work the same way as they do in a conventional engine and perform under the extreme temperatures and pressures found inside a rocket engine,” said Nick Case, the testing lead for the engine project, in a press release. “The turbopump got its ‘heartbeat’ racing at more than 90,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and the end result is the flame you see coming out of the thrust chamber to produce over 20,000 pounds of thrust, and an engine like this could produce enough power for an upper stage of a rocket or a Mars lander.”
NASA is also currently hosting a contest for engineers to compete to create a food preparation item using a 3-D printer. The winner of the contest that ends in May, is set for a ridiculous prize. A trip to the ISS to watch his or her item printed in space.
NASA’s folded manufacturing
When NASA’s nearly $10 billion dollar Webb Space Telescope launches in the fall of 2017, the telescope will assemble itself during its 1.5 million mile journey before becoming operational.
“Made in Space” is also working on Archinaut, which could one day print massive pieces of tech that would then be assembled by robots in space.
CEO Rush sees, “giant radio dishes that could service many people, or do amazing science and peer deep into the universe’s past”.
The team doesn’t see this project doing much in the next four to five years, but sees potential after that.
Additionally, NASA and “Made in Space” licensing the technology to commercial space endeavors. Elon Musk of Tesla and, perhaps more importantly, SpaceX is the type of person that this would appeal to.
Mr. Rush also sees the potential for getting raw materials from space, say, the surface of the moon or even Mars.
“The space environment is a very valuable and unique environment,” says Mr Rush. “We can make things that would just be impossible to create on Earth.
“This will eventually enable us to really live off the land, not only in micro-gravity, but on other moons and planets.”