Companies are constantly coming up with new uses for 3D printing technology.
The medical industry uses 3D printers to create body parts including teeth, joints, and even a 3D printed heart. Other industries use this technology to create jewelry, clothing, furniture, food, and houses. 3D printing technology has advanced significantly in recent years. And, thanks to companies like Cubify, MakerBot, and 3D Systems, these printers and products are readily accessible at the consumer level.
Is there anything that 3D printers can’t do?
The European Space Agency (ESA) doesn’t think so. According to Space.com, the ESA is exploring how 3D printing can transform space travel. On Earth, this technology can aid in the design process, providing quick and affordable physical representations of spacecraft designs. Another advantage 3D printers provide is the ability to create and test parts before they are taken to space.
Officials with ESA’s Propulsion Engineering section have learned that 3D printing technology could provide a way of building the extremely complex shapes required by rocket nozzles and combustion chambers. A showerhead injector, with complex internal geometry and more than a hundred separate welds provided a challenge. For this item, the selective laser melting metal 3D printer technology must produce 150 micron-diameter holes studding the 25 mm-diameter showerhead, a seeming difficulty, but some suppliers report the capability to achieve this goal.
And printing new parts aboard a spacecraft or a space station is much more cost effective and efficient than launching replacement parts into space from Earth.
The ESA isn’t the only organization exploring ways in which this incredible technology can be exploited in space. The asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI) plans to use its MicroGravity Foundry (a fancy 3D printer) to utilize mined asteroid resources to print metal components. According to Popular Science, DSI claims the MicroGravity Foundry could potentially “print new parts for Mars missions, components for new outposts that would replace communications satellites, and even space stations that can beam power back to Earth.”
NASA wants to use 3D printers to construct buildings on the Moon. Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor and director of the University of Southern California’s manufacturing engineering graduate program, was awarded a $500,000 grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts division to develop automated building technology that will allow scientists to build structures on planets and moons. He developed a technology known as contour crafting that uses 3D printing to build cement buildings at a relatively fast pace, using locally available materials. This means that rather than the costly process of sending building materials to the Moon, this technology could construct a lunar colony using the Moon’s dirt.
Although Khoshnevis’s system brings space construction closer to reality, it is reportedly still decades away from being utilized to construct buildings on the Moon.
A similar concept called SpiderFab aims to use 3D printing technology aboard a small satellite to construct spacecraft in space using scavenged materials like asteroids or other space junk. Tech News Daily describes that “using 3D printers to build spacecraft parts in orbit would offer an easier way to construct huge space antennas or space telescope components 10 or 20 times larger than today’s counterparts without having to fold them up and squeeze them inside a rocket — missions could simply launch with the 3D printers and raw materials.”
With the ability to enhance the spaceship design process, build habitats, create clothing, and make food, there is no question that 3D printing technology will drive the future of space exploration.