Imagine a future in which humanity builds outposts in space – on the surface of the moon, floating in the clouds above Venus, or on the dusty plains of Mars – capable of manufacturing parts built to digital order, rather than waiting months or years for replacement supplies from Earth. This kind of self-sufficiency is an essential goal for the success of such ventures. For one California startup company, it’s a goal that’s closer than most people think.
Made In Space, a small company (it has only 22 employees) founded just four years ago with the assistance of Silicon Valley high-tech incubator Singularity University, is pioneering the development of 3-D printers capable of operating in microgravity environments. The machine designed by Made In Space uses an extrusion-based method that layers hot liquefied ABS plastic to build objects based off digital 3-D models. Future machines would use other materials, ideally – in the case of extraterrestrial outposts – materials mined locally.
“The goal of Made In Space is to develop the necessary technologies to allow humanity to move beyond earth,” said Made In Space Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder Jason Dunn. “The ability to construct materials, tools and structures in space is essential to the exploration and development of our solar system.”
Made In Space’s first ‘field device’ arrived on the International Space Station (ISS) in September 2014, and has since been successfully used to produce a variety of objects, including at least one that can’t be easily manufactured in an environment with normal gravity. Most recently, the printer made headlines for producing a tool that wasn’t even designed when the machine was launched. The humble ratchet wrench, produced in response to a request made by ISS astronauts, represents a milestone in on-demand manufacturing.
“NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars,” explained Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3-D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours. If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities.”
In the short term, in-space manufacturing technology could bring down the cost of spaceflight significantly, allowing astronauts to bring a printer and raw material into orbit instead of a large cache of spare parts. On the ISS, for instance, as much as 30% of its parts could potentially be replaced with 3-D printed constructs. In the long term, in-space manufacturing could spell the difference between success and failure for NASA’s more ambitious ventures to the moon and beyond.
Both NASA and Made In Space have expressed satisfaction with the performance of the printer, although NASA is proceeding cautiously until it is able to return the 3-D printed objects to the ground and run them through structural and mechanical testing.
“When we started Made In Space in 2010, we laid out a large, audacious vision for changing space exploration by bringing manufacturing to space,” said Dunn. “We’re nearing the culmination of the first stage of our larger vision.”