It’s not just cutting edge startups helping NASA achieve its 3D printing in space goals; students and universities are also playing an important role. At South Dakota State University (SDState), a team of mechanical engineering students have been developing new 3D printing materials for use aboard the International Space Station.
The SDState research initiative, supported through a one-year, $25,000 grant from NASA, is part of the larger eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge put forth by NASA. The program, known commonly as X-Hab, has selected 10 teams from different universities to develop and advance technologies for the space agency’s deep space exploration efforts. (Other participating schools include the University of Michigan, University of Maryland and Ohio State University.)
At SDState, the research project has centered on the creation of new 3D printing materials which could be deployed into space for use on the ISS and its onboard Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF). Todd Letcher, an assistant professor who is helping to lead the project, says that the school’s interest in 3D printing has grown tremendously over recent years, making it a suitable candidate for the project.
Letcher acquired his first 3D printer in 2014 through a Scholarly Excellence Fund, he explains. Now, his lab in Crothers Engineering Hall at SDState operates nearly a dozen 3D printers, each of which has been specially modified.
Through the NASA collaboration, a team of senior design students will be developing and testing new feedstock materials which could have applications in space. The goal, as Letcher explains, is to create materials which have better strength and fatigue resistance than the plastic materials currently being used on the ISS and which have properties resembling those of metals.
NASA will cooperate in the materials development by offering the students videoconferences with NASA engineers. These meetings will help the students to select the materials they will work with and help to guide the project along. For additional 3D printing input, students will also have support from Made In Space, the company which has pioneered 3D printing in space and sent the first 3D printer to to ISS.
With the new materials, the SDState students will 3D print test objects which will undergo rigorous testing at the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Materials Evaluation and Testing Laboratory. The materials with the most promising results will then be used to create objects such as brackets, containers and wrenches, which would be useful aboard the ISS.
Aside from helping NASA to expand its 3D printing in space capabilities, Letcher hopes the project will also inspire some of his students to pursue a career in the aerospace industry.