Made In Space conducts large-scale 3-D build in space-like environment
Made In Space has conducted its first successful test of its Archinaut Project in a space-like environment. The Extended Structure Additive Manufacturing Machine (ESAMM) was tested in a vacuum chamber at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Additive manufacturing is more commonly known as “3-D printing”.
On July 5, 2017, Spaceflight Insider reported on Made In Space’s project to combine 3-D printing with robotic arms to revolutionize space construction. Rather than lifting gigantic payloads into orbit, and having to configure them to withstand the g-forces of liftoff rather than optimizing them for use in space, the Archinaut Project aims to 3-D-print components on orbit and then assemble them using robotic arms.
Eric Joyce, Archinaut’s project manager, said of the test: “To our knowledge, this is the first time additive manufacturing has been successfully tested on such a large scale in the vacuum and temperature conditions of space.”
The problem with 3-D printing in space is that normal 3-D printers don’t work properly. Jason Dunn, CTO and co-founder of Made In Space, explained the problem:
Getting a 3-D printer there quick was our goal, we took these commercial printers on the zero-g flights and we tested over a dozen different printers and then built some new printers of our own, but through that entire process, we did over three hours of zero-gravity time. We found that none of the commercial printers would work. We had to modify them significantly to get thermal settings right, to get the mechanical settings right, all the things you would imagine. But then on top of that, just to build a printer that could survive launch to the Space Station, to meet all the safety requirements to work on the Space Station. The outgassing can be harmful to the crew, and the EMI, and the things like that.
Throughout June, the team conducted hundreds of hours of tests, working round the clock at the vacuum chamber, printing up beam segments similar to many of the sections used in the construction of various space structures.
“This was a big step for us,” Joyce said. “It advances the technology and gives us real confidence the hardware will do the job in space that it does here on the ground, enabling us to print sturdy, reliable structures of unlimited size. It was a history-making test.”
“Up until this point in time, there’s only been one way to get hardware into space, and that’s been launching it on rockets,” Dunn said. “And now, today, with the 3-D printer on the Space Station, there’s actually an entirely new way to get hardware there. We in fact just e-mail the digital file to our 3-D printer and print it out. So we think that’s a paradigm shift.”
“This technology is absolutely transformative,” Joyce said. “Archinaut has the potential to dramatically advance discovery in space, reducing the time and money spent launching hardware and equipment and putting the focus on the human explorers who will use that made-in-space equipment to explore the cosmos.”
In September 2014, Made In Space’s custom-designed 3-D printer was delivered to the International Space Station. With this year’s the vacuum testing, the paradigm shift envisioned by Dunn, Joyce, and the rest of the Archinaut team is closer to fruition.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
It can’t hurt. But it will probably be limited to simple tools and structures. You aren’t going to make a tiny integrated circuit with millions of transistors in space.