Long-term space travel is fraught with challenges. NASA, in cooperation with numerous commercial and international organizations, is getting creative to solve some of the major limitations that are inherent with space travel. Preparing for the unforeseen is naturally a difficult issue and while the unknown is unconquerable, there are some obstacles that can be overcome. One of these is access to tools in space, tools that no one planned on needing and weren’t packed aboard before liftoff.
Making due with the onboard resources available to astronauts will be the only option in deep space. NASA has been experimenting with 3-D printers to create tools on the fly in the International Space Station (ISS) with much success. From there they have created a real life MacGyver machine. It doesn’t use a pencil, rubber band and a paperclip to solve the problem. Instead, it recycles previously printed parts back into raw material for another round of printing. All of this in a machine the size of a mini-refrigerator.
Space outside of a spacecraft is unlimited, but not so much on the inside. There is little wiggle room when planning and designing spacecraft. Onboard equipment pulls double duty and needs to be compact. The Refabricator meets both criteria and can even recycle waste material, reducing waste onboard the ship. If a tool is damaged or broken it goes back into the Refabricator, insuring that the machine always has a ready supply of feedstock to create tools.
By April 2018, the ISS will receive the first prototype machine to test on board. It will be operated remotely by the ground crew, saving the astronauts time and effort calibrating the machine. NASA hopes to incorporate metal as a fabrication option in the future. It’s an ambitious goal that would have far reaching benefits.
Metal printing is not easy. 3-D printing is an additive process, metal, due to its high melting temperature and brittle nature has generally been a subtractive process when in a solid form. Such as taking a large piece of metal and removing sections through varies means such as CNC milling, welding or cutting. Plastic on the other hand is far more malleable and bonds with less effort.
A hand full of companies have recently released printing systems that create something close to 3-D printed metal. In reality, it is injection molding that makes use of 3D printed parts to create the initial mold. Calling it 3-D printing is a stretch, but I guess it’s easier to think of it that way. I’ve only found one company that claims to have a printer that actually 3-D prints metal, they published their press release just this September.
The technology will get there eventually. When it does, astronauts could significantly cut down their payload of tools, printing them on demand and emergency situations could turn into minor inconveniences. 3-D printing technology opens new avenues and opportunities in space environments.