NASA Hopes to 3D Print Spacecraft, Replacement Parts in SpaceHere's an idea: rather than launch large, ungainly structures from here on Earth, why not launch the parts and build it in orbit?
Or so the logic goes behind NASA's newest initiative. NASA has a special projects wing dedicated to giving small chunks of money to promising startup companies named Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or IAC. The latest proposal, coming from Made In Space, a small company from the Singularity University, is to launch a 3D printer especially designed for printing out spacecraft structures.
International Space Station after undocking
This has many advantages, but first and foremost is not having to cram complex structures into a narrow tube. NASA has become a master at origami folding simply because often their antennas and solar panels feature structures far larger than can fit into a rocket assembled.
Another advantage, though, is that the assembly can be done in outer space. Most gantries and structures used in orbit are overkill. Zero-G means that there are very few forces acting on structures, so mostly you need just enough structure to keep it in place. But because everything must be launched from Earth, more rigid structures are needed.
"Our long-term goal for 3D printing is to actually build functioning spacecraft," said Jason Dunn in an interview with InnovationNewsDaily.
"A Cubesat (miniature satellite) could be built with the machine we are designing for the space station in the next several years."
Dunn believes that building structures as large as the Arecebo radio observatory, a 1,000 foot radio telescope in Puerto Rico, is possible using a Cubesat, a satellite roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Simply keep the bot fed with raw material and let it go to work.
Getting the resources up there wouldn't be difficult, either. Simply load an existing rocket with the fuel, probably wound up tight inside the final stage, and launch it into orbit. If this kind of thing takes off, we could see the NASA astronauts designing their own structures in the future, just going with the proverbial flow. Or, the 3D printer could print out replacement parts for the International Space Station, which is chock full of small replicatable bits that still cost a lot to launch.
Right now the project only has $100,000 in funding to research a prototype for the ISS. But that should be more than enough to build a working model. So who knows? Maybe we'll see a 3D printer on the ISS before the end of the decade.