3D printing is now a vital part of the space industry. Space is the most extreme environment that humans have been able to experience. But with its extremity comes the challenge of exploiting raw materials in space – and there are very few such raw materials. Moreover, there is always massive amounts of dust floating around in space.
To overcome these challenges, 3D printing is utilized to create solid structures from those aggregated dust and microscopic particles. To be more precise, 3D printing is such a technology which allows us to mimic nature’s creations – by putting materials and manufacturing layer by layer.
3D printing plays a significant role in accomplishing various space projects. From printing various objects in space to building large lunar bases, astronauts highly rely on this technology. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 5 applications of 3D printing technology in space.
Refabicator is a machine typically used for recycling objects and materials to various usable forms. The International Space Station has a refabricator which is used to convert plastics wastes into printable materials. It is a hybrid system capable of operating in a gravity-free environment. Therefore, it effectively contributes to creating a sustainable in-space manufacturing ecosystem.
#2 3D bioprinting
3D bioprinters are now printing diseased human heart cells in space. 3D printing done in a microgravity environment effectively maintains the shape and form of the printed tissues. Unlike on earth where it is more difficult to manufacture the soft human tissues due to the destructive pull of gravity.
To be more elaborate, the inks used for 3D bioprinting typically have low viscosity. When the ink approaches human body temperature, it solidifies. Bioprinted structures like thick tissues collapse without supports. So to support the bioprinted tissues, researchers have used scaffolds – but they can damage the vascular networks. That’s why in a gravity-free environment is required because then the risk of collapse is eliminated – and the organs can grow. Therefore, in order to develop fully functional bioprinted organs, it is best to work in microgravity.
#3 3D printed satellites
3D printing technology plays a key role in satellite manufacturing. Mostly because 3D printing enables space scientists to create multi-part structures in one component – allowing the satellites to be much lighter. As a result, it is much easier to send them in space. In fact, today, almost the majority of commercial satellites include 3D printed parts such as reflector sleeves and antenna brackets. This technology has enabled a great increase in the satellite production rate in this fast-changing space industry. This way 3D printing is revolutionizing the way spacecraft exteriors are manufactured. It sure has paved the way for future flight projects.
#4 3D printing meteorites
Yes. Objects have been 3D printed from alien metals such as asteroids. NASA has managed to use 3D printing technology to create a replica of the biggest meteorite found from Mars. to be more precise, it was the Martian rock discovered in 2009 by Opportunity Rover.
Researchers believe that space asteroids are full of resources that can be beneficial for us in terms of exploring space.
These asteroids and rocks floating through space can be the source of an infinite supply of useful minerals – minerals that we may gradually run out of here on earth. Therefore, it sure is a potential resource that humans can take advantage of.
However, the concept of mining and processing asteroid or alien rock metals is a tremendous and complex undertaking. Then again, today, 3D printing has made it possible to build using alien metals. Now scientists and researchers finally managed to lay their hands on a piece of Mars and genuinely extract advantages from it. It is just like a technology that seems to come straight out of Sat Trek – using 3D printers to perform successful replication of alien rock.
A replicated model of a meteorite using 3D printed technology – it is no doubt first of its kind. Not only that but it also significantly opened the door to building objects and models on some other parts of the solar system.
#5 3D printed lunar base
The moon is covered in the regolith, which is a typically powdery and lose form of element or material. This material covering the surface of the entire moon was formed from meteors that have bombarded the surface of the moon for millions of years. The regolith has transformed slowly into soil-like bedrock.
Building structures on the moon has been made possible with 3D printing technology. Architects have now analyzed the feasibility and potential of 3D printing in terms of using lunar soil. After ESA (European Space Agency) approved it, researchers have started to give it a serious thought of building a “Moon Village” using the lunar soil. In fact, European scientists have already investigated the possibilities of developing a lunar habitat. There are 3D printers with the capability of printing lunar blocks at approximately 3.5 meters per hour. It is possible to build a whole building within 7 days with such a speed.