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March 20, 2019updated 12 Aug 2019 2:34pm

Additive manufacturing in space: How NASA’s 3D printing could transform spacecraft building

By Ellen Daniel

Perhaps the most talked-about technological advancement in the world of manufacturing over the last decade has been additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is when multiple thin layers of material are built up to make a 3D physical object from a digital model.

The technology has been around for several years now, with the ability to product objects rapidly, accurately and in a way that is more effective, it is having a notable impact on the manufacturing industry. However, the technology is having an impact on the space industry too. NASA is investing in the technology, believing it is a vital next step in launching rockets, and even people, into space.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, due to launch next year, hit the headlines last week after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the space agency was considering launching the spacecraft on a commercial rocket for the first time.

However, the spacecraft will be another first. Orion will be the first deep space mission to be build using 3D-printed parts.

According to the South China Morning Post, The Orion spacecraft is set to include over 100 3D-printed parts engineered by Lockheed Martin, Stratasys, and Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies. The use of 3D printing could be important in future space missions as the technology helps keep manufacturing cost and time to a minimum when compared with traditional manufacturing techniques. In order to withstand extreme conditions, a new form of plastic, called Antero 800NA has been developed.

Parts made using additive manufacturing have also proved to be robust enough to cope with the temperatures encountered during space missions. Last year, the agency hot-fire tested a combustion chamber at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama made using a combination of different 3D printing techniques.

NASA additive manufacturing efforts beyond spacecraft

As well as producing parts of spaceships, NASA is using 3D printing in the manufacture of the tools used as part of those missions. A NASA technologist has used 3D printing to build a nanomaterial detector platform that can be used to detect changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature and gas concentration.

As well as using additive manufacturing in the construction of spacecraft, NASA is also looking to print objects not just on Earth but also in space.

For the past four years, NASA has been researching the possibility of 3D printing in space, and at the end of last year, published its research concluding that 3D printing on board the International Space Station is just as effective as the same process on earth. This opens up the possibility of “Earth-independent” space missions with astronauts able to build their own supplies and carry out repairs without needing to return to Earth.

In the future, NASA’s 3D printing technology could be used to build habitats and infrastructure on other planets without the need for pre-build equipment (asides from the 3D printer itself), an important step in assessing the viability of future civilisations living in space.

Alongside this, NASA is tackling the problem of waste products, and has developed a refabricator, a device that can turn plastic waste into feedstock to be used to 3D print items.

According to Reuters, the ESA, has suggested that moon rock and dust could be used to 3D print structures, significantly reducing the cost of future space missions as less material would need to be transported from Earth.

Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3D printing programme manager at  NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center explains why the technology is so important for space missions:

“When a part breaks or a tool is misplaced, it is difficult and cost-prohibitive to send up a replacement part. With this technology, we can build what is needed on demand instead of waiting for resupply. We may even be able to build entire structures using materials we find on Mars.”

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