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3D Printing in Space – 4 Most Promising Projects

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by Tian Ooi
Jan 23, 2019

3D printing in space is an awesome merging of futuristic fields. From Mars dust buildings to mini satellites, these are our most promising 3D printing in space projects!

Where No Printer Has Gone Before

Made In Space testing their 3D printer in a zero-gravity chamber before launching it into space.
Made In Space testing their 3D printer in a zero-gravity chamber before launching it into space. Source: NASA

3D printing, as you’ll see from these projects, means a lot for the sustainability of space travel. It has applications ranging from creating large lunar bases to printing tiny cells for medical use. 

Having 3D printers in space allows astronauts to print objects they need, when they need them, rather than relying on shipments from Earth. It also makes ships lighter, reducing launch costs.

3D printed objects can be recycled and made into entirely different objects. This would be incredibly useful on long trips when only limited materials are available on board.

However, 3D printing in space is definitely not easy. Though the basic design of a 3D printer stays the same, printing in zero gravity requires special considerations. For one thing, without gravity to hold liquid layers together before they cool, the material itself must be sticky between layers. 

Without further ado, here’s our take on the most interesting developments in 3D printing in space. Enjoy!

1. Wrench Printed in Space

Astronaut Barry (Butch) Wilmore shows off the 3D printed wrench.
Astronaut Barry (Butch) Wilmore shows off the 3D printed wrench. Source: NASA

In 2014, NASA scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) 3D printed a ratchet wrench using files transmitted from Earth. 

This might not seem like a big deal, especially since the wrench itself wasn’t actually for use. But it represented a big step forward towards sustainable space travel. 

“What if it were a tool the crew needed?” explained Werkheiser, a 3D printer manager at NASA, “We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth.” 

Future potential includes custom tools made in space, according to the astronaut’s needs. The lack of gravity in space is also convenient, as pesky overhangs are nonexistent.

The next step? Figuring out which existing tools should be 3D printed in space. “We can’t wait until it is routine to see station astronauts use tools that they built in space,” Werkheiser said. 

NASA also has some 3D resources online, including models of satellites and rockets.

2. Buildings Made of Mars Sand

A 3D printer printing with a blend of regolith and plastic. x
A 3D printer printing with a blend of regolith and plastic. x Source: Glenn Benson / NASA

If people are to live on Mars, they’ll need a place to stay. That means all the labs, compounds, and greenhouses of science fiction must be built to survive the harsh weather in outer space.

3D printing is a great way to use machines to quickly construct structures, even in a zero-gravity environment. However, it’s not feasible to ship all construction materials from Earth — raw materials are heavy and thus expensive to send. The better option, which NASA scientists are investigating, is 3D printing with regolith.

Regolith is somewhat like sand — little bits of crushed rock created by millennia of asteroid impacts. However, since there is very little weathering compared to Earth, regolith is basically super-sharp dust. 

As you can imagine, that poses all sorts of challenges for researchers. The abrasive sand tends to get into machinery and clog up operations. Regolith doesn’t behave exactly like sand, and requires some trickery to get it into 3D printable form. 

However, scientists are hopeful for the future. “We’ve proven it’s a viable concept, and now we are working to characterize and upscale it,” says Nathan Gelino, who works at NASA’s Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab. 

3. CubeSats

If you look closely, you can see the electrical lines embedded on the body.
If you look closely, you can see the electrical lines embedded on the body. Source: ESA

Currently, the European Space Agency is experimenting with 3D printing satellites in a special thermoplastic called PEEK. 

CubeSats (or cube satellites) are satellites about 10 cm in size. They’re small, stackable, and can be connected with other CubeSats to create a satellite system.

Polyether ether ketone, abbreviated to “PEEK”, is the new and robust material that these CubeSats are printed in. What’s special is that rather than wiring up these CubeSats, electrically conductive lines can be 3D printed into the body itself.

These demonstrations are part of a bigger plan for the ESA. “The vision we have is to enable a new maintenance strategy,” says Ugo Lafont, “Space Station crews end up needing all kinds of items, all of which currently require transport from Earth. All of these could be 3D-printed instead – even toothbrushes – since PEEK is biocompatible.”

These 3D printed items are also recyclable, opening up new doors for space sustainability. It’ll be exciting to see what happens next!

4. Bioprinters in Space

Made in Space's printer on the ISS, which the Allevi extruder should fit into.
Made in Space's printer on the ISS, which the Allevi extruder should fit into. Source: Made in Space

Bioprinter company Allevi and Made in Space have teamed up to put the first bioprinter in space.

Made in Space already has two 3D printers on the ISS, but with the addition of Allevi’s ZeroG extruder, they’re hoping to open up opportunities for research. The extruder would slot into the existing printer and print with biomaterials such as hydrogels or hyperelastic bone.

The ZeroG extruder is designed with zero gravity in mind. Extrusion is carefully executed so each layer will stick to the last even without gravity to help. Special systems are also in place to regulate temperatures, since heat flows differently in space.

There’s still a few hurdles to go before the extruder and materials can take off, but both companies are excited about bioprinting’s potential in space.

What does this mean for the future? If an astronaut gets a severe burn or breaks a bone, they could 3D print skin or bone to heal it. How cool is that?

License: The text of "3D Printing in Space – 4 Most Promising Projects" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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