Whenever the word ‘printing’ comes into our mind we assume an image printed on paper which is obviously a 2-dimensional plane. With the advancement of technology and science, now it is possible to print an object in Three-dimensional form. Though the 3D printing technology is not spread worldwide it is slowly making its mark in several industries. Not only that it is taking science to the next level simply by increasing the speed of production.

Space is one of the things that never fails to amaze us, just because of the fact there are more unknown things than the things that we already know about it. That’s why nowadays a lot of countries are investing a lot in space missions and 3D printing is becoming an integral part of every single space mission.

What is 3D Printing?

The 3D printing process is nothing but an additive process. By using 3D printers an object can be formed from a digital image or model. The object is simply made by putting a layer of material on another layer of material. With the help of 3D printing complex structures can be formed more easily by using less amount of material compared to the traditional method of making the objects.

Many software tools are available that are used to make an object. The 3D printing industry is growing rapidly and it is slowly influencing every other industry and especially those industries where designing and planning is the most important thing like space travel, architecture. It is expected that 3D printing technology is capable of transforming almost every single industry.

How 3D Printing is Affecting Space Travel Missions

The use of 3D printing in space missions has a special name for it and it is known as ‘Space Additive Manufacturing’. The benefits of using 3D printing technology are not limited to the creation of equipment required for space travelling, but it is also helping space scientists to plan interplanetary colonization. The use of this technology in the latter case is limited but in the first case, the use of 3D printing is increasing with every passing year in the production of satellites and rockets having low weight.

By using 3D printing technology, not only scientists can produce lightweight rockets but the efficiency can also be increased. As more efficient rockets or satellites can be produced with 3D printing technology, the spending reduces automatically. Now let’s dig deeper into how space additive manufacturing can help space travel.

  • The biggest challenge that a space mission faces in terms of placing the satellite into a planet’s orbit or even in case of landing a satellite on a planet’s surface with the help of a lander is the gravitational force of earth which creates a gravitational pull. In order to launch a satellite into space, this gravitational pull needs to be overcome. Lightweight rockets and satellites will more easily overcome this gravitational pull than rockets with a bigger payload. This payload can be reduced by using the 3D printing technology that can create more efficient and highly effective tools and most importantly all these tools will be light-weighted.
  • If the machinery that is going to be used inside the rocket and the rocket itself is made by using a heavy layer of metals, it will automatically increase the payload. The bigger payload simply means that more money will be required to launch and eventually for the space mission. Along with weight-optimized geometries, space additive manufacturing using 3D printing can reduce the overall cost of the mission. When the space additive manufacturing technology is used the right metal can be chosen by digitally applying all the permutations and combinations and by seeing the result. Besides, that metal replacement becomes easy in case it is needed at any stage of the rocket building process.
  • If items are produced in small batches or singly, the direct advantages can be gained from space additive manufacturing using 3D printing technology. In a single space mission, the cost of building the spacecraft, ground equipment and the launchpad only represent a small amount of revenue of the spacecraft manufacturing industry. In the future, more and more people will move into space and other planets and a space colony will be formed. To date, no technology other than space additive manufacturing is capable of delivering complex yet efficient manufactured products. In space, if the materials required for the construction process like water and metal are present, then with the help of 3D printing technology building structures and other necessary facilities can be built without carrying the metals from the earth. In that case, the building cost will be reduced automatically. A good example of that is the structures that can be built on the surface of the moon and the mars by using the existing metals on the surface of the satellite or the planet known as Lunar or Mars regolith.

Check out: What Is The Future Of The 3D Industry?

How 3D Printing Works in Space?

Most space agencies are manufacturing polymers and plastics by using 3D printing technology. In most desktop printers fused filament fabrication (FFF) process is used for printing purposes. In 3D printers, by using the same process printing is done and this tool does not show any kind of glitch in microgravity or zero gravity.

Plastics used in the making process of 3D printing are mostly reusable, which is a great factor in cost management. NASA, a premium space research organisation, has successfully applied 3D printing in the manufacturing process and is now going to use it in their upcoming long term space missions.

After making sure that 3D printing technology can work in zero gravity that is in space the additive manufacturing facility is set up which includes a square-shaped build envelope. The size of the 3D printer is not bigger than desktop printers. By using the fused filamentation process, long threads of plastics are inserted into the printer via the nozzle and through a heated extruder. On the outside in a tray, layer by layer the desired object is formed.

The re-fabricator unit has a polymer recycler that is capable of converting complex polyethene structures into filaments that can be used in further 3D printing processes.

Metal 3D Printing

Most of the parts used in a spacecraft are made by using metals like aluminium, titanium and steel and that’s why it is necessary for space research centres to develop 3D printers that have metal printing capabilities. On the surface of Earth, it is possible to print metal objects in 3-dimensional form by using selective laser melting (SLM). In this case, the metal that is going to be used in the making of the object is churned into powder and then it is put into the printer from a hopper. A laser ray then melts the metal powder and converts them into layers. Then these layers fuse together to form the object.

But in space this technology cannot be used as the metal powder used in metal 3D printing can cause discomfort in the respiratory passage as it is a respiration hazard. In space (i.e. in microgravity or zero gravity) the metal dust particles can easily enter the respiratory passage of the humans inside the spacecraft. Currently, the ultrasonic technique is considered to be the best fit for this purpose as it can use force and vibrations to join the closely located metal layers to form a metal foil.

3D Printed Parts in a Spacecraft

As metal objects can not be formed by using 3D printing technology, the parts that have nothing to do with load-bearing are made by using 3D printers. After the processing, all the 3D printed parts are visually checked and only then they are installed in the spacecraft. Before the launch, a long time approach is taken so that the products get the time to adapt during long space missions. In space, an astronaut just needs to push the print button to print a device he or she requires, it is that simple.

Future of 3D Printing in Space Travels

3D printing is the key to the future. In future, it is envisioned that it will be possible that a lunar colony will be built only by using 3D printing technology. The developers of  3D printers are working to make the printers in such a way that the printer has an extensive library that will be able to print almost anything and everything related to a space mission. In future, it is possible that a 3D printer will have automatic inspection ability so that it can produce efficient and reliable products without any human interference.

Final Words

As discussed earlier the 3D printing technology is invaluable. It can simply reduce the amount of weight a spaceship or rocket needs to carry for long term missions. This will simply reduce the making cost and the number of space missions will increase as a byproduct of it. 3D printing technology inspires space scientists to create something new, mostly inspires them to experiment, as it is known to reduce the making cost, thus helping space travel.