With my love of all things nerdy, space exploration has always fascinated me. Whether it was watching the massive battles in Star Wars or spending hours outside looking at the night sky, I have always felt a constant draw to the dark abyss of the cosmos. As we as a species are now looking to expand our reach to planets such as Mars, I often find myself pondering the vast complexities of space travel.
Complexities of Space Travel
Throughout the history of our planet’s conquest into the stars, there have been several speed bumps in the road to exploring the unknown. Having the funds, technology, and skilled personnel to be able to both build and pilot a craft capable of breaking out of our atmosphere and entering the mystifying expanse above has been held back by war, reusability, and the lack of countries working together. Even with SpaceX’s recent advancements and announcements of establishing a colony on Mars, one of the most substantial challenges a settlement on a separate planet would face is the inability (and cost) of receiving supplies from Earth. Although, as 3D printing technology evolves, so does the ability to provide those who are outside our planet the assistance they need to both survive and prosper.
3D printers, for those who don’t know, build parts, objects, toys, and even food by turning a digital model into a physical three-dimensional object by adding a layer of material one at a time (additive manufacturing). 3D printing is vastly different than many of the standard practices of producing items today, such as subtractive (CNC machining) and formative (injection molding) manufacturing technologies. By using a 3D printer, no special tools are required, such as a project-specific cutting edge, vastly expanding the abilities and possibilities of the items they can create.
How They Work
By starting with a digital 3D model (blueprint), 3D printers slice the model using the printer’s software into thin, 2-dimensional layers which then gets turned into a set of instructions in G-code (machine language) for the printer to execute. There are several types of 3D printers out there, such as desktop FDM printers and large industrial SLS machines.
3D printers have numerous benefits that make them ideal for use in space exploration, such as inexpensive geometric complexity, advanced customization, wide-range of available materials, low start-up costs, and the ability to create specialty items, such as mission-critical components, in remote locations (like on another planet). For example, if a plastic breather tube were damaged on the ISS (International Space Station), the astronauts would need an immediate replacement and not have to rely on waiting months for a shipment from Earth. By using a 3D printer to create the breather tube, the ISS could have its issue fixed right away, saving a massive amount of time, money, and theoretically ensuring the safety of all crew members.
Another significant role 3D printers would have in space is the ability to create nanosatellites. Nanosatellites, as I am sure you can guess, are merely small, miniaturized satellites (smallsats) that are easier to launch into the Earth’s atmosphere and provide many abilities (when clustered together into a network) that larger, singular satellites cannot. One notable application of these nanosatellites would be SpaceX’s goal of creating free, satellite internet access for the entire world. By using 3D printers, these nanosatellites, which often are only the size of a loaf of bread, can be created in space, thoroughly reducing the cost and time it would take to launch them from our planet’s surface.
Disadvantages in Space
While 3D printers offer many benefits, actually getting them to work in space can be difficult. The traditional 3D printer is quite troublesome to use in zero gravity, due to not having support for the part in creation. However, companies like Made in Space, are working on in-space manufacturing technologies. Archinaut, a platform which enables autonomous manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft systems in orbit, successfully produced multiple truss structures in the thermal vacuum chamber at the NASA Ames Research Campus. By eventually creating items in space rather than on Earth, these items can be made to be lighter and more fragile, since they do not have to withstand Earth’s high-gravity and G-forces sustained during rocket launches.
How They Will Apply to Space Exploration
So, how will 3D printers aid us in other areas of space exploration? Let’s discuss one of my favorite early potential destinations, Mars. Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, is aptly named after the Roman god of war, due to the complexities that are involved with the human species both reaching it and establishing themselves as a resident. Mars is of great interest to us due to its potential for terraforming, Earth-like seasons/temperatures (cold/hot), amount of sunlight, protective atmosphere, and its relatively close proximity to our planet. However, Mars’s extreme weather conditions, such as intense dust storms, isolation, radiation levels, low gravity, and above all, the cost of getting there and back and the initial set-up and continued support of a colony make Mars a force to be reckoned with.
To succeed on Mars, we need to reduce the cost of getting there with reusable rockets (thanks SpaceX), be able to carry everything we need with us on the first trip (enter the 3D printer), and provide sustainable food, water, warmth, energy creation, and decontamination procedures/equipment. Many of these items we need can come from sophisticated and efficient biodomes powered by solar panels. The massive amount of material necessary to create these colonies on Mars can’t simply be carried with a single spacecraft; thus the need to be able to create these items on Mars itself is vital to the entire mission. By using a smaller 3D printer to produce parts for a larger 3D printer, and then by turning materials harvested on Mars into the sections of biodomes, solar panels, decontamination chambers, and the other components needed to create and sustain a colony, you could essentially only carry a fraction of the materials you will need on the initial spacecraft.
While 3D printers can print a wide range of items, products, and materials, we are still not even close to, for example, Star Trek’s replicators, which are used to synthesize meals, weapons, and other items on demand (joking). However, in the coming years, I believe 3D printers will have the most significant impact on space travel, second only to rocket/thrust engine advancements. The human species, with the help of technology such as 3D printing, are destined to travel among the light waves into the rest of the solar system and beyond. As our planet steadily continues down its current, destructive path with little to no help from us to prevent its ensuing life-ending conditions, the time to find another planetary option is now. Let’s just hope we learned the lessons of sustainability from our troubled relationship with Earth when we finally locate a new home.