NASA targets 3D printing for astronauts, cheap satellites

Astronauts could create fixes for space station problems; 3D-printed satellites could provide Internet Wi-Fi for everyone on Earth

SAN JOSE -- NASA contractors have created 3D printed satellites -- tiny wafers that could be deployed by the hundreds from a mother ship -- to cheaply transmit research data back to Earth.

"One of the biggest hurdles that NASA faces is understanding how to reliably build many satellites, many spacecraft ... in a reliable and low-weight way," said Matthew Reyes, founder of Exploration Solutions, a subcontractor for NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC).

Reyes spoke at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo here this week, emphasizing how the 3D printing process can ensure that parts are made to exact specifications by simply having a computer follow CAD-created designs.

Those CAD-created designs could be transmitted to outer space.

Along with Andrew Filo, an inventor, Reyes is also working with ARC's SpaceShop, a machine shop designed to let NASA's Workforce complete do-it-yourself fixes using 3D printing techniques.

The goal of the effort is to commoditize parts for the aerospace industry, making them cheaper to create and send into orbit and beyond.

The point of 3D printing technology in space is to make astronauts more self-sufficient by printing out whatever objects or parts they may need. Astronauts could use 3D printing to experiment by making their own objects or producing replacement parts for things that break.

Reyes pointed out that if the 1970 Apollo 13 mission had included a 3D printer, the astronauts could have printed new parts to fix the broken spacecraft instead of jury-rigging it by cannibalizing other systems.

The Apollo 13 spacecraft was damaged when an oxygen tank exploded. It crippled the service module on which the command module relied.

3D satellites
The 3D printed "mother ship" would deploy Wheat Thin-like wafers into space by the hundreds, each communicating bits of research data back to Earth. Notice the wafer satellites at the bottom of the photo.

Meanwhile, Made In Space has partnered with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to launch the first 3D printer on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The company has built and tested a 3D printer that can work in zero gravity.

Once aboard the ISS, NASA or the space agencies of other nations could transmit 3D CAD plans to the space station where the printed parts could be made. Then the astronauts would assemble the parts for use on the station.

Filo pointed out that parts in space are scarce due to the high cost of the unique inventory, as well as the expense to rocket them into space.

Anything to reduce rocket payloads could potentially save millions of dollars, Reyes said.

"You can print a part for $4 or $5 using [polymers]," Reyes said. "What are we going to print on the International Space Station? We don't know yet, but when we need it, we'll be able to print it."

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