3D Printing Rapid Prototyping in Outer Space



3D printing has already become popular on earth, revolutionizing manufacturing, distribution and design. And now, it will revolutionize how things will work in outer space as well, which will end up saving lives, time, and money. Although space exploration isn’t as hyped about as it was in the 1960s, the industry has still endured and still continues to push the limits and be as innovative as is possible with 3D printing.

NASA 3D printed the first full-scale rocket part made of copper

The copper part, which was actually a part of the engine, was 3D printed by NASA, with the goal of reducing the costs for outer space missions in the future. That stated, this isn’t just any ordinary part made out of copper; this rocket engine liner made out of copper has actually been intricately designed so that it can endure temperatures of both the extremes.

This engine liner was created by a laser sintering machine, in which 8,255 layers of powdered copper were melted together over a time period of almost 11 days in NASA’s laboratory of Materials and Processing in its Space Flight Center. The Glenn Research Center owned by NASA in Cleveland, Ohio is where the copper alloy known as GRCc-84 was developed, and this material was then printed in such a way that the cooling gases are able to recirculate within. The copper alloy is extremely complex and has over 200 inner geometric channels, which will prevent the melting of the liner wall during combustion, as the temperatures on the exterior of the liner will exceed 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA’s main goal is to build engine parts that are 50% cheaper as well as 10 times faster than they ever were before. The designs are much more advanced and effective, and the main objective is to decrease the overall costs of building a rocket engine and to make it affordable for everyone. However, in order to reach that goal, there are several other tests that need to be completed. The next step in the process is to spray a nickel super-alloy “structural jacket” onto the surface of the liner before it is hot-fire tested to see how that performs under extreme pressures and temperatures during simulations which will replicate the exact same conditions that happen inside an engine.

The tools for 3D printing in outer space

Rapid prototyping services will change the aerospace industry both on the ground as well as in orbit. In April of 2015, the engineers at the Space Flight Center finally received a box containing tools that were printed by a machine installed on the ISS (International Space Station) in space in the November of 2014.

They received a ratchet wrench, for example, which was designed on earth by Made in Space, which is a 3D printing company. The files for the design were sent to space electronically so that astronauts in the ISS could print them. Made in Space is currently collaborating with NASA in order to establish a rapid prototyping facility onboard the ISS.

From 14 different designs sent to them, 21 tools in total were printed, and they were then compared with tools that were printed from the same printer before, that is, before it was sent into space. The main goal is to determine how 3D printing is affected by microgravity, which was why project engineers subjected both the sets of instruments to tests of structure, durability, and strength using CT scans, structured light scanning, and electron microscopes.

Although the first tools that were printed in space were more of a test and won’t really be utilized in space, the main intention is to allow the astronauts to print parts that need replacing during outer space missions without needing to wait for supply missions to be sent form earth. Each 6-month operation from ISS operates over 200 science experiments at once, meaning that the ability to create any necessary tool or part quickly would save both money as well as time. That way, any emergency repairs that may be needed can be taken care of much more smoothly. In addition to that, NASA is also planning to try and recycle as much of the printing materials as possible while in space, which will eliminate the need of having to send any new material from earth, as sending a pound of equipment into space takes approximately $10,000.

Printing buildings in space

Aside from just the short-term possibilities of creating tools, there may also come a time in the future when building livable spaces on mars and the moon will be possible. This is the reason why NASA is funding projects as such as professor Behrokh Khoshnevis’s Contour Crafting, which is a project allows portable printers to manufacture full-scale buildings very quickly straight out of digital files, which then reduces time, construction waste, and cost.

It goes without saying that the aerospace industry has benefitted tremendously by 3D printing. Not only does it allow the development, production, as well as the designs to become a lot more cost-effective both on earth and in space, it can even potentially save lives alongside reducing the risks of going into space. That stated, this just goes to show that printing is being utilized into something very important. As it becomes more popular in the fields of medicine, housing, food, and product design, it seems as though NASA is only one among the several different entities that have begun using this revolutionary technology to adapt and push beyond the boundaries of space exploration.




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