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

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Reyes said some of the "low-hanging" fruit that 3D printing can address in terms of equipment in space includes spare parts, propulsion systems, plumbing pipes, even printed food, where a combination of organic ingredients can be extruded to make anything from a pizza to pasta.

Refrigeration and freezing require a lot of resources in space. Currently, food for astronauts consists of prepackaged shelf stable foods, processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods.

According to NASA, the current food system "wouldn't meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long duration missions."

Printing satellites

The other hot area of research is 3D printed satellites, or mass production satellites.

Filo and Zachary Manchester, a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, have created a 3D-printed satellite that can deploy hundreds of wafer satellites through a spring-loaded mechanism that spins them out into space on a flat plane so as to retain their orientation to collect sunlight for power, while transmitting to Earth.

To date, Filo and Manchester's project has raised more than $74,000 on the crowd funding site Kickstarter.

Reyes said studies have proved that the mini-satellites have the potential to offer ubiquitous Wi-Fi to everyone on Earth.

"Our goal is to make satellite construction as easy as downloading 3D CAD files to be printed, milled or otherwise assembled into functional spacecraft," Reyes said.

The 3D printed rectangular "mother ship" that would be carried into space on a rocket is about 16 inches in height and with four-inch sides. It looks like a mini-skyscraper. Each level holds many small wafers about the size of a Wheat Thin cracker. The wafers are 3D-printed plastic with tiny solar panels embedded for powering the electronic sensors and radio transmitter.

Deploying wafers
The mother ship deploying the wafer satellites in a flat spin so that they can collect solar energy and transmit data back to Earth.

Up to 300 of the wafers could be deployed once the satellite was in orbit.

The tiny, 10 milliwatt satellites transmitters would use the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) encoding scheme, a cellular phone radio frequency, to communicate back with scientists on Earth. "That signal is actually many times stronger than the GPS signal you'd be receiving on your cell phone," Reyes said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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