3-D Printing in Space and a Castle on Mars

Two items in the news highlight the potential of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing to benefit an expanding future in space.

The first is very near term, with the upcoming launch of the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station. The printer, which is manufactured by NewSpace company Made in Space,  is among the items to packed aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship for the CRS-4 mission.  The Made in Space printer provides an interesting example of multiple NASA programs working together with a “newspace” company to advance the state of the art and ultimately create what the agency envisions as a “machine shop” aboard ISS.

Credit: Made in Space

Credit: Made in Space

From the NASA item:

“The project is supported by three NASA customers: the International Space Station Technology Development Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; the Advanced Exploration Systems division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington; and the Game Changing Development Program within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, also at NASA Headquarters.

Researchers hope to show a 3-D printer can work normally in space and produce parts equitable to those printed on the ground. It works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working “machine shop” in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts.

If the printer is successful, it will not only serve as the first demonstration of additive manufacturing in microgravity, but it also will bring NASA and Made In Space a big step closer to evolving in-space manufacturing for future missions to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.”

It is also worth noting that an engineering version of the the printer has already received a brief test run on a parabolic zero-G flight as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

And then there’s the long term. When we envision a possible settlement on Mars, as often as not it takes the form of partially or fully buried inflatable cylinders connected to the occasional hard structure which serves as a node. Mars it turns out, seems to have no lack of potential building material if you look hard enough, but turning them into habitable structures could require an inordinate amount of dangerous surface operations.   A recent, very terrestrial story points the way to one solution. 3-D printing an entire house, or in this case,  a small castle. (Original story at 3Ders.org)

Andrey Rudenko, a Minnesota building contractor with an engineering degree has developed a 3-D printer, which extrudes concrete, built a small castle. He plans to commercialize the machine in hopes of spurring a large scale 3-d home printing business in the U.S. It is a process already underway in China.  While we are still a long way from a sophisticated end product here on Earth, the rate of progress is impressive. Putting several trends together, there seems to be little doubt that by the time the first permanent settlers are arriving on Mars, the technology will have progressed far beyond what we are seeing now.

Provided we find a way to harvest and utilize the elements products on Mars to produce the necessary raw materials, it becomes a little less incredulous to envision the same future Elon Musk does, of hundreds of thousands of people living on the the Red Planet.

Dejah Thoris Where are You? Credit:  Andrey Rudenko

Dejah Thoris Where are You?
Credit: Andrey Rudenko

Posted in: Mars, NASA, NewSpace

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