3D Printers in the Space Industry

 May 19, 2021

By  BC Editorial Team

This is a guest contribution by Egor Driagin, CMO at Top3DGroup

In his short story “The Necessary Thing” (1955) Robert Sheckley described a configurator that two astronauts took with them on their interstellar trip. It could print anything they would need: from spaceship parts to apple strudel as a dessert. More than half a century later, the reality is closer to the writer’s idea than ever, although still did not surpass it. NASA is developing a 3D printer to produce parts on the ISS. The evolution of 3D technologies can significantly affect both the aerospace industry as a whole and the prospects of design offices.

A 3D printer is a device that constructs a physical solid object based on a digital 3D model working layer by layer. It can use different materials: plastics, metals, stem cells, and even food components. Today there are many different 3D printing technologies on the market, and new ones are regularly emerging. There are two main methods to form layers: laser and jetting. The most often common ones are laser stereolithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).

This article will talk about existing and potential ways to use 3D printers in star navigation and the aerospace industry.

3D Printers in Space

3D printing can be used in space in the following prospective directions:

1. 3D Printing to Produce Parts and Tools Onboard of Spacecraft

In September 2014, NASA and a company named Made in Space launched a 3D printer to the ISS for the first time. The device was used to make various parts: spare ones, tools, and scientific equipment.

The 3D printer was producing the models on a layer-by-layer basis out of polymers and other materials. Digital 3D models are either kept on the device or can be sent from Earth remotely if needed.

The new technology is linked to grand prospects of orbital work optimization: from simple 3D printing of spare parts to producing robots, navigation systems, space suits, and research equipment.

2. 3D Printing to Produce Large-Sized Objects in Spac

In 2013, NASA invested $500,000 to Tethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI) company for further development of the SpiderFab automated assembling technology as a part of the NIAC program.

The technology is based on the use of the Trusselator, a device that looks like a mix between a 3D printer and a knitting machine.

One side of a cylindrically shaped device features a filament spool (the device uses plastics as material: for example, carbon fiber). The other side features an extruder that can produce the tubes of a future farm or other building.

With the help of a manipulator and a special welding machine, the Trusselator can connect such farms into big complex structures and cover them with solar panels, light-reflective film, and do other tasks depending on a mission. The produced tubes can be different, ranging from round square ones of various sizes and thickness.

The Trusselator can build large-sized structures. For example, kilometer-long frames for solar panels.

A Trusselator with the size of a nanosatellite can build a farm bigger than 10 meters.

SpiderFab robots are equipped with the extruder that outputs a ready-to-use plastic tube that features large-volume barrel containers that consist of materials. The devices are also equipped with manipulators that can assemble structures.

The technology makes it possible to produce large objects in space: kilometers-long frames of spacecraft, antenna farms, basic structures of solar electric stations, large telescopes, etc.

Currently, the objects that are sent to space have excessive safety margins to withstand g-forces at launch. But usually, such durability of structures is not needed in space. But the large sizes are often required. For example, for interferometers. SpiderFab devices make building such systems possible. They end up being lightweight, large-sized, and inexpensive.

All of the necessary parts of orbital production complex SpiderFab can be sent into space using modern launch vehicles. Factually speaking, even with the current technologies SpiderFab can help to realize breakthrough projects, such as building space stations beyond Lunar orbit or solar stations with the power of several megawatts. And the costs will be relatively low. One of the possible use cases would be building a radio telescope in space, with the cost of $200 million and an antenna with a diameter of 100 meters (30 feet). Currently, this is not achievable but SpiderFab technology can make it possible in upcoming decades.

3. 3D Printing for Building Objects on Other Planets and Moons, Including from the Materials at Han

In 2011, NASA published their own project of building a lunar base using various robots: excavators, bulldozers, choppers, etc.

European Space Agency offered an alternate lunar base project. It involves 3D printing using local soil as a material.

The 3D printer in question is D-Shape by British company Monolite. It can use Lunar soil, regolith, as a material.

Regolith is a loose layer of heterogeneous superficial deposits of dust. It’s several meters deep and consists of igneous rocks, minerals, glass, meteors, and is good for building.

The picture below shows a block that weighs 1.5 tonnes and was produced using the D-Shape 3D printer as an example. The material was 99.8% identical to regolith and was taken from basalt rocks of one of the Central Italy volcanoes.

The print head of the device moves across the twenty feet (six meters) long frame. The printing speed is 2 cubic meters per hour, and the final version of the device can print 3.5 cubic meters per hour. Constructing one small building will take around a week.

The picture below shows a model of the project by the European Space Agency. The base consists of four habitable modules. The central and upper-left ones are finished, while the rest are at the final stage of construction. The modules are connected with tunnels, each of them has four illuminators. The approximate size of the base can be estimated after looking at an astronaut model that stands close to the central module.

Nowadays 3D printers are used for construction on Earth. Chinese company WinSun claims that their 3D printers can produce affordable buildings in a short time. The company can 3D print ten 200 square meters inch houses in 24 hours. Each would cost around $5,000.

4. Food 3D Printers

In 2013, NASA announced financing the development of the first 3D printer that would produce food. Such devices would help astronauts during long trips.

New 3D printers can produce food from various ingredients that are stored in powder state in special cartridges. Mixing the contents of cartridges and adding water or oil will result in various dishes.

A 3D printer sprays the ingredients layer after layer, producing solid 3D food.

The first thing to produce with a food 3D printer would be pizza. At first, the dough will be made, then tomato and protein layers. The source of the latter could be anything, including animals, milk, and plants. Insects and seaweed can be the alternative.

The expected service time of a single food cartridge is around 30 years, which would be enough for traveling to Mars, as an example.

BC Editorial Team


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