3-D Printing Helps Advance Space Exploration

I may be biased, but in my view, 3-D printing is one of the most exciting technologies, and one of its most promising applications is in the realm of space exploration. In the last year, new research has provided a tantalizing preview of all the ways that 3-D printing will affect the future of space exploration, including how it could be used in the production of materials for the purposes of space travel, the construction of off-planet bases, and the printing of essential equipment.

The field of 3-D printing is constantly evolving, and I think it’s important to occasionally showcase some of the newest developments that have caught my eye.

Creating technology for use in space

A company in California announced this summer that it had successfully created polymer-alloy structures in a vacuum chamber at one of NASA’s research facilities. This breakthrough holds plenty of promise for our ability to build things like telescopes and other devices in space-- which would alleviate the need to launch and position equipment that may be too large for rockets to carry.

Airbus also built and deployed an electronic satellite that featured an important 3-D printed component. The company was able to decrease the launch mass of the satellite by refining the use of 3-D printing in their construction of the satellite.

Off-planet construction

Space.com recently reported that a university in Canada is working on a 3-D printer that will be able to recreate itself from lunar material. The 3-D printer would be delivered to the moon, where it would use surrounding lunar regolith (soil and small particles of meteorites) to create a copy of itself. Many of these printers, used together, could produce suitable habitats for astronauts, or even create a simple manufacturing infrastructure from scratch.

Equipment for space exploration

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently used 3-D printing to produce a kind of fabric that is reflective, foldable, strong, and thermally adaptive. The fabric could one day be used as a protective material for equipment, like space shuttles and space stations, or in the development of better and safer spacesuits.

In the same article, it was revealed that a team from MIT 3-D printed a nylon-based rocket nozzle, with the idea that it would be both cheaper and more efficient if it were feasible to use materials, like nylon, that are easier to 3-D print than metal. Although the 3-D printed rocket nozzle degraded after the second round of testing, the overall results were encouraging.