3D printing has trailblazed its way through many industries over the last decade, most notably in manufacturing with companies like Protolabs offering their industrial 3D printing services to produce a wide range of components and parts. However, 3D printing’s most exciting mission so far is its voyage into the cosmos with some awe-inspiring space applications. We take a look at some of the most fascinating…
Bio printing in space
Bioprinting is the process of using Additive Manufacturing to create organ structures using living cells that are able to multiply. Because of the shortage of suitable organs for donation, particularly for seriously ill patients, research has begun into the creation of these structures in an outer space environment. In a recent BBC article, Andrew Morgan, former US Army doctor and NASA astronaut explains that being able to transplant tissues from an injured person’s own cells would be very beneficial. He went on to explain that performing the creation of tissue through 3D printing on Earth can cause it to collapse due to the gravity, but this is different in micro-gravity environments.
3D printed space satellites
In February 2023, multinational aerospace corporation, Airbus, used Additive Manufacturing to produce 500 radio frequency components, for two of Eurostar Neo spacecraft. Produced at its Airbus Defence and Space site in Portsmouth, and noted as the first large-scale use of radio frequency products produced using AM, the company said during production, labor costs were reduced and fewer parts were required. The spacecraft will join the Eutelsat fleet in France to support broadcasting services across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
3D printed moon dust
Can lunar soil be used as a material to 3D print with? US space agency, NASA is about to find out. ‘Regolith’ is the loose soil-like material found on the surface of the moon, and the aim is for it to be used to create landing pads and houses in space, replacing more labor-intensive methods. NASA also believes that using on-site materials could lead to improved infrastructure on Earth in more isolated areas, resulting in faster responses to natural disasters.
3D printed space craft parts
Supporting the idea of more localised printing, engineering and manufacturing company, Made In Space has outlined a mission that will see larger structures being 3D printed in space. Named the Archnaut Mission, the concept is to enable the next generation of large-scale in-space manufacturing. Using both robotic assembly and additive manufacturing, the technology developed by MIS makes way for constructing complex objects in space. On-orbit servicing and manufacturing will also help repair and maintain already launched satellites.
US multinational Boeing is no stranger to 3D printing. Specialising in the manufacture and sale of airplanes, rockets and telecommunications equipment, the company has been using 3D printing for its satellite production. A few years ago, it produced the first metal satellite antenna via 3D printing. During the assembly process, multiple parts were reduced to just one 3D printed part, bringing down both production time and weight of the part.
3D printed moon rover
3D printing cannot be left out of the equation when it comes to roaming the moon. A few years ago, the 35 kg Audi Lunar Quattro was developed by the automotive company and a team of engineers. Able to navigate the uneven surface of the moon at an average speed of 3.6 km/h, the Quattro is a small rover made with 3D printed solar panels to power itself and its cameras. The plan is that it will be sent to the moon in October 2023 on the reusable space vehicle, the Falcon 9, created by SpaceX.
3D printing medical equipment in space
Medical equipment like dental crowns and hearing devices have been 3D printed on the ground for some time, but why print them in space? Printing in space benefits astronauts who can experience a number of health issues on space missions. Infection risks and bodily injuries may result in astronauts having to be returned to Earth, causing interruptions and time implications. To help turn things around, Copper 3D has been given funding from NASA to look into how medical devices can be 3D printed at the International Space Station to help with health issues occurring on long-term missions.