Additive manufacturing will be used more and more by NASA for launches and even explorations. This is simple to guess. Lower the costs and payload of each mission. But here are other important reasons why additive manufacturing will be increasingly widespread in missions.
Production of spare parts
When NASA prepares a mission it does it as if for a move… but much more equipped! It’s necessary to carry spare parts and necessary supplies of all kinds. It is easy to guess which deposit of unused materials has been created on the ISS all over the years. But it’s not just a matter of inventory. 3D printing will allow for longer-lasting missions and also facilitate any exploration. So far, NASA’s additive manufacturing for the International Space Station has been limited to 3D printing polymers or plastics. This is the case, for example, of the Multimaterial 3D printer for polymers (AMF) Made in Space, used to study and produce functional parts on the ISS, including flying robots used for research on the space station. NASA used this technology already in 2014 and 2016.
While more recent projects focus on 3D printing of other materials such as ceramics and metals and the use of hybrid systems. Many of the parts needed for space missions are aluminum, titanium, and steel. However, the method of 3D printing metals on Earth involves very large systems that require high power. The dust produced is also combustible, thus representing a danger in a microgravity environment. However, this remains among the goals of the NASA experiment.
Building new environments and objects
Greenhouses, and power plants. The 3D-printed orbital solar power plant is being tested in the UK. This will send energy to the earth in the form of microwaves. But also launch platforms and habitats. A robotic 3D printing system will use lunar regolith with earth binders for autonomous construction on the lunar surface. Also in this mode, it will be possible to furnish this habitat with furniture or workshops. 3D printing can be applied to produce these objects on-site, even with recycled material from launch vehicles.
Some plastics used on the ISS are also recyclable, an important feature when considering efficiency and cost savings. Even more fundamental when you consider NASA’s willingness to explore the Moon and Mars. This is the case with ReFabricator which has the reuse capability that allows NASA to “close the production cycle” on long-duration missions so that the raw material for the printers does not have to be launched.
There are objects of the earth that in microgravity can be produced more efficiently and precisely. The nature of those environments in fact, would allow to comply with production defects. Among the sectors that could benefit from it there is also the pharmaceutical one.
Bringing vehicles into space
With the exponential increase in launch companies, the frequency and quantity of launches are expected to increase accordingly. Powertrains and engines could increasingly be produced with additive manufacturing. This would be able to improve performance by reducing the load. More compact spaces for more efficient technologies also in terms of fuel use.