MADE IN SPACE

On 21 September 2014, NASA placed the first 3D in orbit, designed to work without gravity, Zero Gravity, which has given way to a new generation of objects made outside Earth, branded Made in Space [1], and laid the foundations for what would soon be the first Fab Lab Space, to build the necessary replacement parts in space missions.

This project was developed within the postgraduate programme of the Singularity University [2] in August 2010 by three young people: Aaron Kémmer –current CEO-, Jason Dunn –Technology Manager – and Mike Chen – Strategy Manager- who created the company Made In Space Inc. so that the future of humanity could expand into space. With this idea in mind, they developed an additive fabrication 3D printer to use in space, an initiative that allows to produce replacement parts for damaged components instead of sending them from Earth. This equipment will obviously help to save time and money in NASA space missions, as it will not be necessary to wait for parts to be made on Earth and sent to space, as is currently the case. The company is currently made up of twenty-five people, including space experts and 3D print developers, who have devoted more than 30,000 hours of testing in four years.

This first version of the Zero Gravity printer is on International Space Station (ISS), orbiting about 400 km from Earth, at a speed of 27,000 km/h, and is serving as a testbed to understand the long term effects that the lack of gravity has in 3D printing. Last 25 November saw the first object made outside Earth, a faceplate for its own printhead, made of ABS plastic embossed with “NASA and Made in Space” to state its geographical and business origin. Astronauts could see that the printer worked well and plastic filaments proved to adhere better without gravity than on Earth. This is why NASA now plans to produce two types of twenty identical objects, some on ISS and others at the company’s headquarters in California, with the aim of analysing their differences and similarities. If these tests obtain positive results, this prototype will be replaced by a much larger printer in 2015, which will be sent to the International Space Station.

Here it should be pointed out that the cost of launching any object into space costs about US$ 10,000 per kg., which means that reducing the printer’s weight translates into significant cost savings. On the other hand, producing parts on demand will no longer require sending out replacement items in case one breaks.  In this regard, NASA has so far spent more than 1,200 million dollars in replacement parts for ISS, most of which will never be used.  Furthermore, it will no longer be necessary to have a stock of replacement parts that take up valuable storage space.  Another difference is the design of parts itself, whose structure must be oversized to resist launch stresses and to be handled on Earth but that will no longer be needed in space as they will not withstand the force of Earth’s gravity. This means that the designed objects to be built in space will be ultralight, thus saving weight on the International Space Station. It is estimated that 30% of parts on ISS will be replaced by 3D printed pieces, in addition to printing the necessary tools to replace them.  This technology will allow astronauts to easily replace lost or damaged pieces, researchers will be able to develop their experiments, and designers will be able to create new types of objects with minimal structures that can only exist in environments without gravity. Another forthcoming challenge, the design of Zero Gravity objects.

 

Marcelo Leslabay

Lecturer in Industrial Design, Faculty of Engineering, University of Deusto.
@leslabay

[1] Made in Space www.madeinspace.us

[2] Singularity University is an academic center located in Silicon Valley that was created by Google and NASA in 2008, with the support of IDEO design study. Its aim is to bring together, train and inspire a group of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the exponential development of technologies to solve the great challenges faced by humanity. http://singularityu.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.