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NASA Closing In On Emailing Hardware to Space

Posted on September 6th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

NASA Refabricator

Image by NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given [public domain] via NASA website

Instead of overcoming lengthy resupply trips for deep space exploration, NASA plans to eliminate them through recycling, reusing, and 3D printing.

Since 2014, NASA has been testing and developing their additive manufacturing capability in space on the International Space Station with the goal of manufacturing critical spares, tools, and replacement parts in place. This need becomes even more acute as resupply transit times for manned space expeditions to Mars and beyond become longer, more expensive, and with less frequency. 3D printing only provides the capability to produce the requisite items, still requiring raw materials or feedstock as an input.

Enter the “Refabricator” – a combined recycler and 3D printer in one unit that accepts plastic materials of varying sizes and turn them into feedstock for 3D printing. About the size of a small refrigerator, the device is currently being tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. A flight unit is scheduled for launch to the ISS in April 2018. According to Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, “It simply won’t be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive. The Refabricator will be key in demonstrating a sustainable logistics model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials.”

Unlike additive manufacturing on earth, the effects of 3D printing in zero gravity can have a dramatic impact on manufacturing parameters and part outcome. Many 3D printing processes utilize powdered material for feedstock which will not only fail to flow in zero gravity environments, but also represent an exposure risk to humans should they become uncontained. NASA’s development program includes fully understanding all the challenges, risks, and mitigation strategies. Have a look at the following YouTube video from NASA for more insight on their approach to understanding manufacturing in space:

“I think we’re making history by for the first time ever being able to make what we need when we need it in space and even though it may sound a little like science fiction we’re actually able to email our hardware to space instead of launching it – kind of cool,” said Werkheiser. I tend to agree. It’s not just the idea of this being done in space that’s cool, it’s also the thought that “space junk” can become something useful. A recent study reports as of 2015, we’ve created nearly 7 billion tons of plastic waste on the earth with 79% ending up in the environment or landfills. It would be a shame to export this trend to other worlds.

What are your thoughts about 3D printing in space? Given the opportunity, would you volunteer to be one of the first manufacturers in space? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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