How 3D Printing is Used in Space industry?
 |  Anastasia Misiuk

3D Printing in the Space Industry

The space industry is a leading one in creating new applications of 3D printing. Printed parts for spacecraft are much lighter than those which are traditionally manufactured. Modern additive manufacturing allows printing on board of a craft during the expedition, which is a huge plus for astronauts. Printing could help to produce spare parts for space ships on demand, equipment for expeditions, food supplies and even whole lunar bases!

Let's find out why else 3D printing is so important for the space industry?

  • Meals for astronauts

Food 3D printing is no longer just a temporary trend, it’s a whole niche market which is developing mainly in professional restaurant and catering business.

In space, 3D printing food can provide astronauts with meals onboard without a necessity to carry food supplies from Earth. Recently, NASA has invested $125,000 in pizza for astronauts printing project. Why pizza? Well, pizza is one of the most perfect items for 3D printing.

Printed pizzas are made of different layers put on top of each other. The first layer is dough deposited on the heating bed, the second layer is tomato sauce - a mixture of water, oil and tomato powder. Finally, animal and vegetal proteins are added.

3D printing process allows to prepare pizzas quite fast and creates a possibility to add nutritious proteins, macro and microelements to meals. Stored in a special cartridge in powder, the ingredients stay edible for around 30 years. This is enough even for a space mission between Earth and Mars.  

  • Space base on the Moon

International architectural studio Foster + Partnerhas designed a structure for lunar habitation during expeditions to the moon in partnership with Monolite, UK.

According to the project, the base must be assembled around a dome built on Earth. This dome will filter gamma rays, solar radiation, and meteorites impacts. On the moon itself, two 3D printers would finish the build and strengthen the structure by using raw materials found on the spot.

Currently, Monolith UK claims that their 3D printer is able to print a complete base from scratch in less than two weeks. The next generation of printers will be able to produce the same product two times faster.

image source: inhabitat.com

  • Printing spare parts

A 3D printer which is capable of producing items in zero gravity already exists. It creates an excellent possibility to print-on-demand spare parts in space. Compared to a traditional way of transporting parts from earth, it’s a much faster and cheaper solution, because sending a simple spare part from Earth could take up to a year and cost around $17,000 per kilo. The next step of this project is to create a database of downloadable 3D files of all the parts which are needed in the space station in order to save time.   

  • Materials found on the spot

When printing in space, the materials should also be considered well. Nowadays, scientists are experimentally printing regolith. It’s a powder which covers solid rocks on Earth, Moon, Mars, some asteroids and consists mainly of dust, soil, broken rock, and related materials.

Regolith is different from sand. Sand grains have a rounder shape, as they are affected by wind, rains, and tides. Those forces don’t exist on the moon, and grains of regolith are sharp as shards of glass. Regolith is a material which is dangerous to work with. It could be carcinogenic in the lungs in the same way as asbestos.

Scientists expect basalt regolith on Mars to have similar properties to lunar regolith, so they experiment with stimulants created on Earth.

image source: universetoday.com

What lies ahead for 3D printing in space?

The materials and processes for production demand low mass, high performance and very high reliability of the end product with no repair/maintenance option. The highly demanding environment also requires very small and complex geometry during the process of design.

3D printing allows to enable design for performances, create functional structures of completely new and optimized shapes. Additive manufacturing allows mass savings of average more than 50% and up to 95% for selected parts. The number of manufacturing steps in a process chain has been decreased thanks to printing technology.

While developing space hardware using AM technology, researches notified that it could reduce the environmental impact of space missions. A few factors affect that, such as decreasing the amount of required and transported raw materials, processing speed optimization, decreasing energy consumption and reducing CO2 footprint.

We can tell with no doubt, that 3D printing while being a modern technology of tomorrow became a perfect innovational solution for the space industry.