AM for Space Exploration

Space additive manufacturing is going to have a key role in enabling the future of human space travel and interplanetary colonization. In fact, it is already playing a key role in enabling the production of low-cost satellites and lighter, more efficient rockets to take cargos into orbit.


Whether it will take another 10, 50 or 100 years for commercial space-based ventures to grow into one of the largest—if not the largest—manufacturing segments, we are already living past the dawn of the commercial space age. Commercial space exploration or commercial planetary colonization may not yet be at hand but, driven by the satellite and communication industries, several companies of various sizes are now creating viable business opportunities in space.


One of the most significant challenges that all these space ventures need to overcome in order to place satellites, probes, landers, telescopes or even spacecraft in orbit is the high per kilogram cost required to break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull. This means that for every additional kilogram of payload, mission costs can increase by several orders of magnitude because heavier or bigger payloads require larger and more powerful launch vehicles.


Additive manufacturing provides the most effective tool to optimize weight in systems built to reach space. This is true both for launch vehicles and—until the time when resources are gathered in space—for spaceborne systems and devices. Together with weight optimized geometries, AM can help to greatly lower the cost of commercial space activities by continuing to drive the development of advanced materials, including metal replacement, high-performance polymers and composites.


space additive manufacturing
Click on the image to read about the most relevant projects for 3D printing interplanetary space habitats


Space, the next frontier for 3D printing

Additional direct advantages can be derived from increased process automation for small batch series or single item production—which is a more relevant issue in rocketry and satellite manufacturing than in any manufacturing segment. In its latest report dedicated to Space Additive Manufacturing, SmarTech Publishing expects AM to play a very significant role in the future development of the $330 billion space industry.


This is especially true within the $120-billion commercial infrastructure and support segments—including the manufacturing of spacecraft, in-space platforms and ground equipment, as well as launch services and independent research and development. While the overall revenues will continue to represent only a minimal part of the overall space manufacturing industry, AM has the potential to be one of the key elements that will help the commercial space industry grow into maturity.


Recently, Made In Space celebrated the one-year anniversary (March 23, 2016) of the launch of its Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) to the International Space Station (ISS). Since the second-generation 3D printer was installed on ISS, 39 prints have been made for customers, ranging from medical parts for researchers, parts for NASA and commercial customers such as Lowe’s and the Brazilian company Braskem, to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) projects for students.


Availability of construction materials (e.g., metals, water) in space (on asteroids or on surfaces of planetary bodies) creates the possibility to additively build settlements and other facilities without having to take expensive and bulky prefabricated materials out of Earth’s gravitational field. Lunar and Mars regolith, for example, could be used to construct pressurized habitats for human shelter as well as other infrastructure (landing pads, roads, blast walls, shade walls and hangars for protection against thermal radiation and micrometeorites). Several NASA and ESA funded projects explored the concept of using various additive manufacturing techniques to build infrastructure on the Moon and on Mars.

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