For years now, the chief obstacle in the way of space exploration was high technology cost, particularly when it comes to long-duration flights. Now, however, tech is becoming ever more accessible, and 3D printing in space plays a major part in that. Read on to discover the latest advances of 3D printing in the space industry and some problems it already helps solve.
What issues does 3D printing help solve?
The most important issue most space 3D printing companies aim to address is the high cost of rocket manufacturing technology. Layer-by-layer additive manufacturing has already resulted in many important advances, making rocket component parts cheaper, lighter, and more durable. Plus, a space 3D printer installed right on the spacecraft can address even more issues with supply on long-duration flights because all necessary component parts, from rocket spares to food, will be produced right on the spot.
And this is no longer some distant science fiction future — we already have 3D printed spacecraft technology that can produce seamless spares, basic food, and many more. Obviously, a 3D printed spaceship is not that far away, too. But how does it work exactly?
How does 3D Printing work in Space?
In a nutshell, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing tech that uses computer technology to synthesize an object layer-by-layer. This technology was first introduced in 1986, but it became widely accepted in aerospace only in the early 2000s. Right now, rocket engine manufacturing using 3D printing tech is in the highest demand. For this, aerospace companies use all sorts of durable composite materials, including metal powders, basalt fibre, polycarbonates, and other materials that can withstand very high printing temperatures.
One of the latest NASA’s space 3D printing initiatives implies using extraterrestrial materials as well. Specifically, NASA plans to use Martian ice for 3D printing habitats on the Red Planet. ESA does not lag behind; in 2013, this agency suggested a lunar dome project built using the Moon regolith, easily available on our satellite’s surface. But what are private companies doing?
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Obviously, private aerospace companies are actively developing space 3D printing because, for them, a balance between affordability and quality is a must. SpaceX, for example, already has a proven technology for producing 3D printed space helmets for astronauts made from durable PEEK plastic. Its rockets, Falcon9 and Starship, are also built using metal 3D printing technology. As a result, SpaceX has managed to create some of the most affordable and yet highly reliable launch vehicles, according to Orbital Today and numerous other sources.
But SpaceX is not the only company that understands all the benefits of space 3D printing. New Zealand-based Rocket Lab and UK Orbex Space also print their engines using additive manufacturing tech. Boeing, Rocketdyne, Airbus, Aerojet, and other giants also rely on 3D printing for manufacturing their component parts.
Advances of 3D Printing Food in Space
Still, one of the most prominent achievements in 3D printing technologies is that space printers can produce food for astronauts — right onboard! The 3D printed meal menu is still a bit limited, but the progress is beyond dispute. How do they do it? Well, there is no magic, so the food is not produced out of thin air. Space 3D printing uses food powder, stored in special computer cartridges. Then, layer by layer, printers mix all necessary ingredients, add oil or water, and cook!
The first ‘cooked’ astronaut treat in space was a pizza that included a layer of dough, tomato sauce, and protein filler. One space food cartridge is currently designed to last 30 years and can work with many protein powder sources, from milk to vegetables.
What Can Space Station 3D Printer Do?
The printer located on the ISS is called Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), and its latest version has been in use since 2019. The first object ever printed on the ISS was a wrench, but of course, the astronauts did not stop there. In three years of operation, AMF has already created a lot of functional elements and essential components parts, including antennas, adapters, etc.
Besides, the company behind AMF technology, Made in Space, recently initiated another ISS project — Recycler. The idea is to use printing materials more than once by employing threads that can withstand repeated use without degrading. If proven successful, this 3D printing technology will surely play a major role in long-term space missions and long-duration flights.
All of the above facts pretty much answer the question — how will 3D printing benefit space travel? But even this is only the beginning because 3D technology does not stand still, and new developments are introduced almost every day. So, a 100% 3D printed space rocket that would take us to a new habitat on Mars (or further) is no longer an unattainable dream.