The Made in Space team test out 3D printing in micro-gravity environment
There was a time in the not too distant past were pretty much every mainstream news article about 3D printing started with a description of the Star Trek Replicator, fortunately those days have been and gone when talking about manufacturing on terra firma but forgive this erstwhile writer for dragging that metaphor back from the dead for this article.
“Manufacturing in space has been something that has been a given in science fiction since time in memorial, since HG Wells,” Andrew Rush, President of Made In Space, tells me and it isn’t just the realms of science fiction that the concept has been floating around for a long time. The Space Studies Institute ran a bi-annual conference from 1977 called Space Manufacturing until 2010 and the idea of 3D printing in space can be traced back to 2001 when NASA were testing a Stratasys FDM machine on a micro-gravity KC-135 flight.
The conclusions from that experiment were: “Solid Freeform Fabrication has significant potential as an enabling technology for long-duration manned space flight. Rapid development of an International Space Station (ISS) flight experiment is supported.” And a four-year programme was recommended. So it seems quite strange that the first proper usable item 3D printed in space was a ratchet on the ISS by Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore some 13 years later. While one may wonder why it has taken so long Andrew Rush points out that there are so many more factors than just micro-gravity to consider when 3D printing in space.
The Zero Gravity 3D Printer
“There's no natural convection in a micro-gravity environment and heat is a huge thing for any 3D printing and we had to really factor in the human safety,” says Rush. “3D printing material is often hydrocarbon based and toxic in some ways when heated so we had to ensure that we had systems in place to protect the astronauts. We also don’t use support material on ISS because it can allow a foreign object to breed on station, so designing moving parts prints like the ratchet without support material is another level of difficulty.”
Made In Space made a total of 25 parts in a total of 28 hours on its initial Zero-Gravity 3D Printer on board the ISS but the ratchet is rightfully the most famous of those. It wasn’t a test part like all of the other designs that had been planned meticulously before its launch it was a spare of the moment opportunity Andrew Rush and his team seized upon. Commander Wilmore had gone to the printer to remove a little a sample socket head - designed to prove that spare parts could be produced in zero gravity – he looked at the part and laughed.
“The ISS is about the size of a house with six people living in it and just like you often lose things in your own home, where you have gravity to hold them down, the astronauts lose things on occasion,” Rush says, sticking up for Commander Wilmore’s misplaced torque wrench. “It was a really awesome opportunity to design something useful for Butch.”
Made In Space
Butch Wilmore with Ratchet
Here is Butch with the ratchet printed on the Zero G Printer
Bearing in mind the fact that they could not use support material the Made In Space design team set about making a single-part torque wrench in just a day and asked NASA if they could not only schedule in some time in Butch’s busy schedule for him to pick the print up but also use the space agency’s notoriously confidential uplink process to send the part to the machine. “Within three and a half hours the famous picture of Butch was taken, he was very happy with it and crucially we proved that if things go array on a mission, we can fix it with 3D printing.”
The Final Frontier
Ratchets and spare parts are one thing but Made In Space goal from its inception in 2010 is to ‘enable humanity’s future in space’. The Zero Gravity 3D Printer is just the first step of an incredibly ambitious and thorough plan. Next is a more fully rounded additive manufacturing facility, called AMF, that is slated in to be launched to the ISS in Q1 of 2016 and the aim of that commercially operated machine is not only to allow companies and researchers to test in space without having put the wares onto a rocket but also to put into action the next step for Made In Space’s galaxy quest.
“It costs roughly $20,000 per kilo to get something into space,” explains Rush. “If you came to me and asked to launch a CubeSat (miniaturized satellite for space research) it would take at least six months to get a launch date, get it qualified to fly and then to wait around for that rocket to blast off. But by having a manufacturing facility stationed in space we can save thousands of dollars and cut the time down significantly.”
By having a manufacturing facility stationed in space we can save thousands of dollars and cut the time down significantly.
In his CES 2016 presentation Rush described the ability to manufacture and deploy satellites in orbit as being the second in a paradigm shift for human space exploration from what he described as the current “camping trip model” of packing everything up before we go. If the first paradigm shift has been achieved and the second sounds feasible, the third is positively HG Wellsian.
“In every single frontier we’ve had tools to manufacture living spaces and we currently don't have those for space,” says Rush, with the emphasis being on currently. Made In Space is working on a technology that will allow us to print huge objects in space from a smaller machine, a technology that may solve a problem that is hurtling towards us in less than a decade.
Life after ISS
You only have to take a look at UK column inches and airtime dedicated to Tim Peake’s blast off to the ISS to see how relevant the research and living quarters remains. Yet it’s long past halfway of its lifecycle; in 2024 the plan is to dump the $150 billion asset in the ocean.
In March of 2015 Roscosmos and NASA confirmed that the Russian and US space agencies would work together on building a new space station, which would help with the ultimate goal of a mission to Mars. Rush believes that the only option to do so would be to manufacture it in situ.
“The ISS was built via shuttle over 40 missions, we don't have the benefit of shuttle anymore. Currently, if you want to create something big in space you have to pack it all down like origami to fit into a rocket and though we're really good at that, it creates points of failure which are the engineer's worst enemy.”
Archinaut technology by Made in Space
Archinaut technology developed by Made in Space may enable us to manufacture large objects in space.
Made In Space’s answer is Archinaut technology being developed under NASA’s Tipping Point Technologies fund. Archinaut aims to enable spacecraft to manufacture and assemble unlaunchable structures in orbit. Though this genuinely does sound like something from sci-fi Rush tells me that there are four key factors to manufacturing and assembling in space and three of them have already been achieved; 3D printing in a micro-gravity environment; 3D printing with vacuum rated materials; and in-space robotic assembly, which robotic arms already on the ISS would be capable of.
The final factor is the ability to manufacture extended complex structures in orbit, which is where Archinaut steps in. For this project Made In Space is teaming up with Northrop Grumman - to provide expertise in electronic interfaces and external thermal control - and Oceaneering Space Systems, who will design and build the manipulator arm.
This ability to robotically manufacture in space gives kudos to the plans of NASA’s European peers at the European Space Agency (ESA) who announced earlier this year that they are going to push ahead with an idea that even they have labelled as “crazy” in the past.
ESA and Forster & Partners
The Moon Project
The habitable Moon Project by European Space Agency
The basic principle has been in this magazine before; we would send robots to the moon, they would use moon dust as the raw material to build habitats, which humans could inhabit and then we could then launch longer missions from. In a press conference General Director of the ESA Prof. Jan Woerner said:
“I looked into the requirements I see for a project after ISS. As of today, I see the Moon Village as the ideal successor of the International Space Station for (space) exploration. The moon would be a stepping stone or a pit-stop, that’s crucial, because we have to test, for instance, how to build structures on a planet, instead of bringing all the stuff there,” echoing those sentiments Andrew Rush made.
When asked about the feasibility about a lunar village the Made In Space President was surprisingly upbeat about the idea. “We don't have enough moon dust to just play around with, we didn't bring enough back, but there is volcanic ash and soil that simulates the properties of moon dust really well. We have printed objects and structures with it that could be suitable for the building blocks of a lunar habitat. With any lunar mission there's a lot of engineering and a lot of planning to do but the basic concept works.”
We have printed objects and structures with it (a moon dust simulation) that could be suitable for the building blocks of a lunar habitat.
With all of this talk of moon dust, as our conversation came to an end, I had to ask Andrew Rush if he finds the conspiracy theories about the moon landing funny or infuriating? After laughing he said:
“It is only frustrating when it gets to the point where it is actually threatening real science and fortunately that's less prominent with the moon conspiracies than it is with vaccinations.”