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To Infinity and Beyond – 3D Printing in Space

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They say it is not about the destination, but about the journey. What if that journey is designed to last forever?

Space travel is becoming both increasingly important and newsworthy as the 21st century accelerates towards the start of its third decade. Further, space exploration is no longer the sole domain of state-owned enterprises like NASA, with organizations such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic focused on leading the race to push humans further into the unknown. It is interesting to consider just how challenging it would be to hit one of the abovementioned firms’ targets of commercial space travel or colonizing new planets, if feasible at all. Are celebrity entrepreneurs trying to push humanity or their personal brands forward?

Taking aim at SpaceX, Elon Musk is set on Mars. How far away is Mars? It depends on the orbits of Earth and the Red Planet, but, give or take, it is roughly 56 million kilometers (34.8 million miles) away.1 The longest commercial flight in the world is between Singapore and New York – 10,357 miles.2 Mars is 3,360 Singapore – New York flights. Packing the right tools for such a long, one-way trip can be tricky – a lot can go wrong on a trip to find other potentially inhabitable planets. The more complex the mission, the more contingencies one would have to plan for, the more technical equipment would have to be included and the increased (already limited) space to be used to house all these technical pieces. Space that could have been used for other important resources for the trip – say, oxygen.

Enter Made In Space, a start-up that envisions “a future where life and work in space are commonplace.”3 3D printing on Earth relies on one critical, universal input – gravity. The absence of gravity in space should not be taken lightly when considering layering particles on top of each other in the hope they bind as intended. In order to combat this, Made In Space partnered with NASA in 2014 to evaluate the effect of microgravity on the fused deposition modelling (FDM) system.4 To figure out the differences of printing on Earth and in space, the teams printed identical objects both at ground-level as well as on the International Space Station (ISS). Discrepancies between in the mechanical properties and specimen structures were studied, with follow-on studies developed to identify sources of variability.5

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As the team continues to make progress, ideation around the potential the technology has is on overdrive. CEO and co-founder of Made In Space, Aaron Kemmer, noted that “the possibilities range from building on-demand parts for human missions to building large space habitats that are optimized for space.”6 And in space, size matters: the bigger you can build the better for solar arrays that power technology in orbit, telescopes that explore the galaxy and satellites that deliver internet services to those of us down here. To manufacture these larger parts on Earth and send them into orbit is just not feasible, but Made In Space claim that they could do it by sending up a printer the size of a small refrigerator7

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This has the potential to change space exploration from both a cost and planning perspective. Before launching a mission to distant planets or galaxies, teams must carefully consider the entirety of the mission beforehand to ensure the requirements of whatever they are hoping to measure will be met by the tools they pack in. Going forward, it is possible that more spontaneous expeditions can be launched with shorter planning timelines protected by the assurance that as needs change, so can equipment.

Although engineering is often front-of-mind when considering the challenges of space exploration, another problem is our own human condition. To address this a study on 3D printed surgical instruments was evaluated by a Mars simulation team in 2016. The four simulated surgical tasks conducted were all successfully completed by team members who had no prior surgical experience.8

Depending on your disposition, we are either extremely lucky or not to live in an era of technologies that will push humanity to never before imagined frontiers. As time passes, it will be interesting to see how the priorities of state-owned and private-sector space exploration companies differ. Who will win this new space race? Who will benefit most from which winners? And what rules are at play over ownership of whatever it is we find out there? It is not inconceivable to consider a future where private companies rival nation states when drawing borders on Mars, and we must ask what that means for the future of democracy when equity-protected commercial enterprises own and control civilizations? Humans have long adored a good competition, and this may just be the most exciting race yet.

 

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[1] Nola Taylor Redd, “How Long Does It Take To Get To Mars?”, space.com, November 14, 2017, [URL], accessed November 2018.

[2] Benjamin Zhang, “The 11 longest flights in the world, ranked”, www.businesinsider.com, October 12, 2018, [URL], accessed November 2018.

[3] Made In Space, “Mission”, http://madeinspace.us/mission/, accessed November 2018.

[4] Prater, Bean, Werkheiser, Beshears, Rolin, Rabenberg, . . . Bell. (2017). A Ground-Based Study on Extruder Standoff Distance for the 3D Printing in Zero Gravity Technology Demonstration Mission. NASA Center for AeroSpace Information (CASI). Reports, NASA Center for AeroSpace Information (CASI). Reports, Jun 1, 2017.

[5] Prater, Bean, Werkheiser, Beshears, Rolin, Rabenberg, . . . Bell. (2017). A Ground-Based Study on Extruder Standoff Distance for the 3D Printing in Zero Gravity Technology Demonstration Mission. NASA Center for AeroSpace Information (CASI). Reports, NASA Center for AeroSpace Information (CASI). Reports, Jun 1, 2017.

[6] Writers, S. 2011, 3D Printing Now Possible in Zero-Gravity Conditions, Washington.

[7] Oliva Solon, “’It’s about expanding Earth’: could we build cities in space?”, www.theguardian.com, April 21, 2018, [URL], accessed November 2018.

[8] Wong JY, Pfahnl AC. 3D printed surgical instruments evaluated by a simulated crew of a Mars mission. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2016; 87(9):806–810.

[9] Image source: Oliva Solon, “’It’s about expanding Earth’: could we build cities in space?”, www.theguardian.com, April 21, 2018, [URL], accessed November 2018.

[10] Image source: Oliva Solon, “’It’s about expanding Earth’: could we build cities in space?”, www.theguardian.com, April 21, 2018, [URL], accessed November 2018.

13 thoughts on “To Infinity and Beyond – 3D Printing in Space

  1. I am convinced that additive manufacturing will have a central role in the future of space explorations. As the article states, 3D printing solves the problem of sending large objects to the space. In fact, in the next decades additive manufacturing will be used to build satellites [1]. For me the biggest benefit of using additive manufacturing in the space is that crewed spacecrafts will have the possibility to build new artifacts that they did not know that they will need before going to the space. Quincy Bean, Principal Investigator for a 3D Printing Project at NASA, says “There is probably not going to be a resupply mission to Mars if they forget something or if they lose something” [2]. I believe that in the short-term the humanity is not prepared for a “space race” and the particular projects of different organizations and countries will be only specific events. Therefore, I think that it is impossible to predict who will win a space race. In the following decades, the countries should enact laws to agree on the ownership rules of the space territories.

    [1] Prescouter, “What are the applications of additive manufacturing in space”, https://www.prescouter.com/2017/09/additive-manufacturing-space/, accessed on November 2018.
    [2] Motherboard, “3D Printing in space is really hard”, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/4x3pzn/3d-printing-in-space-is-really-hard/, accessed on November 2018.

  2. I believe you hit the nail on the head when analyzing the game-changing benefits additive manufacturing can bring to space exploration. This isn’t simply about manufacturing, this is about enabling and supporting missions that by nature carry an incredible degree of uncertainty and risk. In space, where the allowed margin of error is zero, having these tools at hand will give astronauts significantly greater capabilities to navigate unexpected challenges or hitherto unknown environments. This is indeed an incredibly exciting time – to quote a certain franchise, we are beginning to tap on the doors of “Space… the final frontier.”

    Your open question is a tough one to answer, but our experience with the moon may provide some guidance: According to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signed by every space-faring country, no nation can claim sovereignty over Earth’s lunar satellite. 102 countries have entered into to the 1967 accord; China joined in 1983. But space law scholars debate whether the Treaty actually implicitly prohibits, or allows, private ownership on celestial bodies. (http://nasawatch.com/archives/2014/02/who-owns-the-mo.html) A similar treaty may be signed once a manned mission to Mars draws near, but this still doesn’t answer your question about the legal rights of private corporations.

  3. I like your name.

    I think 3D printing in the space will take humanity to another level of space exploration. One thing that I’d like to challenge the idea of space 3D printing forward is how could we manage space trash in the future. In the past, and still today, people make the best effort to calculate for whatever they send to space, wishing the best result does not go vain. However, if the 3D printer enables and encourages people to try more and more, the residues may fall onto earth. Worst come to worst, they may not completely combust during in the space and hit someone, or even my, house.

    Potentially, the simplest answer would be attaching the 3D printer with a maneuverable space station.

  4. Regarding the potential benefit of 3D printing in space towards the overall space exploration mission, I am actually a little bit skeptical. First thing that pops up in my mind is the first law of thermodynamics – namely the principle of energy conservation that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. I think the main obstacle of this idea is not the absence of gravity – it is still the logistics of how to bring the raw material required by the 3D printer as an input. While the ability to send a small 3D printer into outer space and not sending bulky manufactured equipment from earth sounds attractive, unless the 3D printer can use material readily available in space or Mars as an input, the same logistical problem still persists.

    Furthermore, while it is an interesting exercise to guess who will win the space race to claim ownership of Mars, I believe that past performance is not indicative of future result and it is too early to even make any educated guess at this time. What is more important though, is the positive effect of private company entering the industry to break down monopoly in the industry, create healthy competitive landscape, and spur the rapid growth of innovation that has been stagnant over the past decades.

  5. While this is a fascinating idea, I can’t help but feel very skeptical of the process. Did you get a sense for how quality differed for products developed in space compared to earth? What about cost for products developed in space v. earth? Is the main barrier to production gravity or is it manpower, materials, etc… Are there other companies developing 3D printing capabilities for space? Can this process be studied in phases? Perhaps first in a controlled environment on earth instead of the international space station?

    I understand that 3D printing in space is a very new idea and the company is still young – it will be interesting to see how management addresses these kinds of questions in the near-future!

    1. These are all very reasonable questions. I’m skeptical that the cost to transport materials or produce parts in space is advantageous. I do think there’s value in being able to produce parts in space though. If a part were to fail on a satellite, the traditional option to replace that part is to send it up with the next shuttle. Stocking the satellite with a 3d printing machine and raw material that may be used to produce almost any part is a huge benefit that enables the research to continue without interruption.

  6. Thanks for an entertaining read!

    I think one of the key questions surrounding the value proposition of 3-D printing in space vs. sending objects up from Earth regards the required energy consumption (and required fuel) to send raw materials up into space. Part of the challenge in long-haul space missions, or even sending things into orbit, stem from the large amounts of physical fuel required to do so, and the fact that like anything else, this fuel has weight (which in turn requires energy to send up etc.). While the benefits of being able to print out replacement parts or backups for a long-haul flight like to Mars are clear, there is an issue around the availability of raw material. It would presumably cost as much or more to send blocks of materials up to space as it would be to carry backup parts, so is the 3-D printing of objects in space that valuable from a cost perspective? Unless you are able to gather the material in space, it’s hard to see the cost-benefits of this project, but perhaps I am being short-sighted.

  7. I had never thought about the challenges of manufacturing in space due to the lack of gravity, but the applications of this technology are clearly far-reaching. To draw on an example from class, as we saw with the beer game simulation, long lead times in a supply chain process can have amplified effects throughout the entire supply chain. If one considers how long it would take to deliver materials to space, the benefits of this technology seem self-evident. The ability to 3D print exploration or even surgical tools on-demand, in space, seems like it would enable teams to move more quickly, and could potentially reduce the possibility that teams are starved for specific resources.

    I am, however, skeptical of one of the benefits of the technology you described. Considering how costly space exploration is, I’m doubtful of the need for spontaneous space exploration. While I could envision scenarios in which a mission chooses to remain in a given location somewhat spontaneously, it seems unlikely that a space team would spontaneously decide to launch an expedition given the safety risks.

  8. Interesting read ! As I understand, 3D printing in space can have several benefits ranging form increased space for oxygen, to lower cost of space mission. I am just wondering – as competition grows in the space industry, and investments increase the cost of 3D printing will probably go down – but is the long road to efficient space 3D printing worth the benefit?

  9. Great article on the final frontier. I found the points around mission planning with additive manufacturing capabilities on board to be most thought provoking. Imagining a future in which food, medicine, tools and large scale equipment can be printed on board the vessel, the flexibility and safety of such missions could be greatly increased. As more companies move towards space travel for the masses, these concerns of safety and flexibility will certainly come into the foreground.

  10. The topic of space economy is fascinating – from one side, there are the endless opportunities, from the other the current limitations. As we learn over and over again in the space of exponential technologies, we should not draw conclusions based on today’s limitations, as technologies keep on evolving and doubling their capacity/speed/power and reducing their costs by half at a very high frequency. In this case, it would be interesting to understand the economics of space economy and of the related applications. Both from a financial and operational side, it could be interesting to run scenarios to understand what could be possible when, as well as to understand what are the levers we should pull to make greater things happen still within our generation!

  11. This is a fascinating article and a topic that I’ve never heard about before — thank you for educating us on this! While I think the idea is extremely creative and has great potentials, I do question whether it solves the challenge of space travel (or rather, whether it adds real value to space travel). Fuel availability and travel speed are real limitations for human’s space ambitions, and AM does little to address either of the challenges. In addition, carrying raw supplies needed for the build-as-you-go program demands space and weight on the rocket. While build-as-you-go helps save some time, do benefits of time savings from such program outweigh the hassles of carrying extra materials/supplies that may potentially demand greater fuel consumption? I personally don’t think such idea is useful for space exploration, at least not in the near-term, and likely not commercially viable. However, I do think the build-as-you-go using AM is a promising idea, especially on international cargo ships. Shipping goods from one continent to another takes weeks. Imagine being able to build something on the ship using AM during that few weeks — it’ll help shorten inventory turnaround time and lessen the burden of inventory holding, delivering massive financial benefits to companies. Dell did this in the early 2000s by assembling their laptops on ships from Asia to the U.S., and I think AM allows companies to produce a larger variety of products during the shipping process at a much lower cost

  12. Didn’t expect to read about space here. Thanks!

    Two thoughts:
    1. What material will be used? It should be universal enough to cover a wide range of applications and at the same time be recyclable. Currently, an alloy seems to be the most logical decision.
    2. Actually, in a combination with a space elevator, it could be an interesting solution to cover future energy needs (if a space elevator will have energy transmission functionality).

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