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NASA Installed World’s First Zero-Gravity 3D Printer on ISS

Image courtesy: NASA

NASA successfully installed the world’s first Zero-Gravity 3D printer on the International Space Station (ISS) to help astronauts experiment with additive manufacturing in microgravity.

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore installed the 3D printer, inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) on the ISS. This Zero-G printer was built under a joint partnership between NASA and company named Made In Space.

The printer was launched on September 21, 2014 in a resupply mission to the ISS.

Zero-G 3D printer (Image Courtesy: Made In Space)
Zero-G 3D printer (Image Courtesy: Made In Space)

The goal of the 3D Printing in Zero-G technology demonstration is an experiment to explore the use of additive manufacturing technology as a reliable platform for sustained in-space manufacturing. For example, ISS could manufacture required tools or spare parts onboard, rather than rely on resupply from the ground.

The first phase of printing will include, among other things, a series of engineering test coupons which will be returned to Earth for analysis and compared to control samples which were made with the same 3D printer while it was at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC), Alabama, prior to launch.

This project provides:

  • The first demonstration of additive manufacturing in space.
  • A comparison between additive manufacturing in Earth’s gravity and in consistent, long-term exposure to microgravity (insufficient in parabolic flights due to “print-pause” style of printing).
  • The gateway to fabricating parts on-demand in space, thus reducing the need for spare parts on the space missions.
  • A technology with the promise to provide a significant return on investment, by enabling future NASA missions that would not be feasible without the capability to manufacture parts in-situ.

In short, this experiment is a first stepping stone to the future ability to manufacture a large portion of materials and equipment in space that has been traditionally launched from Earth surface. If this experiment become successful it will completely change NASA’s methods of space exploration.

What is Microgravity?

We all know the Gravity. It is a force that governs motion throughout the universe. It holds us to the ground, and it keeps the moon in orbit around Earth and Earth in orbit around the sun.

Many people mistakenly think that gravity does not exist in space. However, typical orbital altitudes for human spaceflight vary between 120 – 360 miles above Earth’s surface. The gravitational field is still quite strong in these regions, since this is only about 1.8% the distance to the moon. Earth’s gravitational field at about 250 miles above the surface is 88.8% of its strength at the surface. Therefore, orbiting spacecraft, like the space shuttles are kept in orbit around Earth by gravity.

As we all know, the nature of gravity was first described by Sir Isaac Newton, more than 300 years ago. Gravity is the attraction between any two masses, most apparent when one mass is very large (like Earth). The acceleration of an object toward the ground caused by gravity alone, near the surface of Earth, is called “normal gravity” or 1g. This acceleration is equal to 9.8 m/sec2.

If you drop an apple on Earth, it falls at 1g. If an astronaut on the space station drops an apple, it falls too. It just doesn’t look like its falling. That’s because they’re all falling together: the apple, the astronaut and the station. But they’re not falling towards Earth, they’re falling around it. Because they’re all falling at the same rate, objects inside of the station appear to float in a state we call “zero gravity” (0g), or more accurately microgravity (1×10-6 g.)  

 Additive manufacturing (AM) is the family of manufacturing technology that includes 3-D printing. AM is the means of creating an object by adding material to the object layer by layer. Throughout the history of AM, additive manufacturing in general has gone by various names: stereolithography, 3-D layering and 3-D printing. Nowadays, most common term used to describe AM products is 3-D printing.

We can find the basic principles behind AM in limestone caves; over thousands of years, dripping water creates layers and layers of mineral deposits, which accumulate to form stalagmites, stalactites and pillar {Stalactites- the sharp, slender, downward growing pinnacles that hung from cave roofs. Stalagmites- formed due to the deposition of calcium on the floor, as moisture drips from the roof to the floor}. 3-D printing use same technique but it is much faster and follows a predetermined plan provided by computer software. The computer directs the 3-D printer to add each new layer as a precise cross-section of the final object.  

Space Manufacturing:

It means manufacturing in the orbital space (orbit high above the Earth or any other planet) by using solar energy and raw material from other planets and asteroids. Such facility once established, must be entirely self-sustaining rather than continuously resupplied from the Earth. It is revolutionary concept and we can say that first baby step is manufacturing by using 3-D printer.

I know, it sound like some Hollywood science fiction movie, but right now some organisations like “Space Studies Institute” are researching on the “Technology for Human Space Settlement” and manufacturing is the essential part of such settlements. But in near future such manufacturing have more significance regarding our space expeditions.

Now, we will see–

Economic Rational of Space Manufacturing Industry:

  • Free energy– in free space, solar energy available is not only uninterrupted (available 24 hours a day) but also total amount received in a year is ten times as compare to earth surface.
  • Energy cost of lifting materials from surface to escape distance– it is around one twentieth on lunar surface as compare to earth surface. Currently, scientists are named the device which will lift the material from surface of a planet-“mass driver” and for raw material they are thinking of Moon surface as a start point.
  • Zero gravity– in zero gravity very large objects can be assembled very easily regardless the payload size.

Free uninterrupted energy and Zero gravity are also the main reasons for manufacturing in the orbital space and not on some planetZero gravity creates many options not available on Earth. Zero gravity means no convection currents in molten material, which allows purer material separation processes, perfect crystallization processes etc. Besides, if gravity is needed for a process, artificial gravity can easily be made available by use of a rotating complex to produce a centrifugal force and any strength of artificial gravity can be provided, whatever is ideal.

Space manufacturing is one of the objectives of the recent Mars expeditions, but no concrete facts came out yet in this perspective. On the other hand scientist observed moon in this perspective as follows:

Composition of the Moon:

Image Courtesy: Google
Image Courtesy: Google

 Lunar material is pretty much like Earth’s crust — silicate dirt — oxides of metals and silicon. Oxygen is abundant and can be cooked out of the dirt, but other volatiles are in questionable supply in lunar soil with the exception of ice in super cold lunar craters.

Also, much of the fuel required for operations of mass-driver can be extracted from lunar surface.

The moon is like a beach of fine powder. Mining this powder can be done by bucket-cable-reel draglines instead of heavy Earth-breaking machinery, so moon mining is cheaper.

But all conditions are not favourable, we have look out for large temperature variation on the moon surface (day temperature around 140C (280 F) while at night it decreases up to -170C (-275 F)), there are other obstacles also but our scientists will find the solution.

From the current research, scientists are very optimistic about “Human Space Settlements” concept also.

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