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3D Printing in Zero-G

One of NASA’s most important missions to date reached its final destination early last week. After nearly one year of travel, the Maven spacecraft passed into the Mars orbit. The spacecraft was shortly followed by India’s Mars Orbiter to collaborate on the study of the Red Planet.

The Maven’s mission is to study the planet’s upper atmosphere in hopes to gain invaluable information about its molecular composition. NASA is confident that this information will shed light on questions that we’ve been wondering for a lifetime - can a human survive on Mars? Is it possible to cultivate life on the red planet? Questions like these will be answered in the coming days of the Maven expedition.

While the organization has managed to overcome cosmic restrictions, NASA is now searching for methods to stay in space longer and more efficiently. The potential for 3D printing is now a viable method to be explored. Through the use of 3D printing, supplies can be created and maintained from the inside of spacecrafts, making it possible for astronauts to survive unaided for extended time periods.

An experiment titled 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration launched this month and will continue to be tested throughout the coming year. The 3D printer that will be used at the International Space Station (ISS) was created by Made In Space Inc., a commercial company acquired by NASA through a Small Business Innovative Research Phase III contract. If the experiment proves to be successful, this could lay the foundation for an in-space field of manufacturing. The company is even experimenting with the possibility of using moon dust as a printing material- an experiment that has been successfully carried out in the lab.

For now the experiment is strictly to determine the capabilities of 3D printing in zero-gravity. However, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) will also fund a phase I 3D printing six month study. This research, conducted by Systems and Material Research Consultancy, will focus specifically on the printing of a diversity of shelf stable ingredients and nutrients. Through this process NASA will determine if 3D printing can maximize productivity while minimizing time and waste-matter.

In order for 3D printers to work safely and efficiently in zero gravity, manufacturers needed to customize and test the printers to ensure their functionality. One enormous obstacle is guaranteeing that the printer is 100 percent emission free. The process of 3D printing often includes the burning and reshaping of plastics, which often times releases toxic fumes that would normally be of no significance. However, due to the recycled nature of the oxygen in the shuttles, there’s no room for error when it comes to the air.

If all goes well on this newly launched mission, the stations may gain the ability to become nearly self-sufficient due in part to 3D printing. Printing materials would greatly reduce the number of replenishing space missions, thereby decreasing NASA’s spending drastically. These expenses could, in turn, be used to develop new space technologies.

When we look to the ever growing capabilities of robotics and automation, we may just find a world of possibilities outside of our own. One thing’s for certain, the sky isn’t the limit for 3D printing.

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