3D Printers to Revolutionise Space Travel Within Two Years

3D printing
Astronaut Robert L. Satcher Jr. works outside the International Space Station in 2009. NASA hopes that 3D printing will allow astronauts to set up permanent habitats in the future. NASA/Handout/REUTERS

NASA are aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years, allowing astronauts to set up permanent habitats on other planets and even print their own food.

In an interview with Newsweek, NASA’s 3D printing chief Niki Werkheiser says the technology will revolutionise space travel by allowing astronauts to be away from year for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.

Current costs for space transportation are $10,000 per pound of mass. The development therefore has the potential to save millions of dollars as astronauts can travel light and print essentials on demand whilst in space.

NASA is currently developing its largest rocket yet, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is due to make its first test flight in 2017 and Werkheiser says her team are working to get a 3D printer on-board.

So far, Werkheiser’s team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama have produced several rocket components and a small wrench with the technology and yesterday the team announced the first successful print of a copper engine part for rockets.

However, they are working on much more exciting projects, including printing parts for a small shelter using substitutes for Martian and lunar sand - the theory being that astronauts could one day use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces.

“The bottom line is being able to print anything you need in orbit. When we live on the ground, we don’t think much about running to Home Depot if something breaks but when you’re in space, even tiny things make a difference,” says Werkheiser.

The space agency is also funding a Texas-based company which is researching printing food, and has already produced prototype results in the form of printed pizza.

Other projects include developing a recycler which breaks down food wrappers into filament which the printer could convert into useful tools like circuit boards and batteries.

Werkheiser is optimistic that commercial applications of the technology means 3D printing in space will not be a thing of the future for long.

3D products are already being touted as offering a solution to homelessness and a means of creating human organs for those in need of transplants.

“The beautiful thing about 3D printing is that you’re going to see a pretty rapid evolution of commercial development. It’s going to happen,” says Werkheiser.

NASA has spent some $3m on the In-Space Manufacturing project which Werkheiser heads up.

The prototype 3D printer used on the International Space Station is the size of a small microwave and prints objects the size of an iPhone 6.

It produces objects by a process known as additive construction, using plastic filament as ink and constructing objects by a layering technique. Instructions are uplinked to the printer from ground control via email.

Werkheiser’s team are working on introducing metal filament to allow the printer to produce sturdier tools.

However, they are still working to overcome certain challenges posed by manufacturing in microgravity - for example, whether the layers of heated plastic form strong bonds when layered on top of each other in the absence of gravity.

Nevertheless, Werkheiser believes the technology will provide the key to allowing astronauts to live in space with the same freedom as on earth.

“This suite of capabilities will enable us to operate and live in space as we do on the ground. You need to get that autonomy in space and this is the secret sauce to getting there.”