From the building of large lunar bases to creating tiny cells for medical use, 3D printing is playing a crucial role in our exploration of space travel. Whether it’s the use of 3D printing here on earth for projects heading into space, to the use of 3D printers by astronauts, there are countless benefits for the aerospace industry. When floating around orbit, getting a shipment from Earth isn’t the easiest thing to do – which makes 3D printing all the more crucial to those missions currently taking place around space.
So, without further ado, here’s our take on the most interesting developments in 3D printing in space.
In 2014, NASA scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) 3D printed a ratchet wrench using files transmitted from Earth. While this might not seem like a huge deal considering this was being done by humans that had travelled into space by blasting a metal box from Earth, it highlighted just what is possible in terms of the technology being used in space travel.
The plan is to now create custom tools in space, capable of suiting an astronaut’s individual needs. With every gram of weight crucially important when it comes to space travel, being able to create tools or materials in space rather than having to take everything with them from Earth is a huge bonus to space exploration.
Here at Ogle, we’ve been lucky enough to work on a fantastic project that will see a UK-assembled robotic rover sent to Mars next year. Run in conjunction with The European Space Agency and Airbus, the ExoMars Rover will be sent to the Red Planet in the hope of discovering whether or not there is, or has ever been, life on Mars.
The team at Ogle were tasked with creating a full-size body and solar array which would be mounted on the Mars Lander rover chassis, to be used for terrain handling and testing purposes. The model was also required to be fully operational and capable of being driven both via remote control and autonomously. While we used CNC for the rover’s panels, the main skeleton of the prototype was created using SLS to ensure it was strong enough to handle the testing phase.
If you’re ever visiting Mars, you’re going to need a place to stay. And while you could be forgiven for thinking you’ll always be able to get an Airbnb wherever you are, Mars is still lacking a decent level of accommodation – which is where 3D printing comes in. 3D printing is a great way to use machines to quickly construct structures, even in a zero-gravity environment. That said, it’s not feasible to transport all construction materials from Earth – a task that would bring with it significant costs and logistic issues.
The better option, which NASA scientists are investigating, is using 3D printing. Being able to build accommodation, labs, compounds, greenhouses and every other building scientists and astronauts will need in space using 3D printing would open up the possibility of people basing themselves on planets such as Mars, if not permanently, at least semi permanently – allowing greater time to be spent in space.
Another fascinating aerospace project we’ve worked on here at Ogle HQ saw us tasked with creating a whisky glass model which would withstand rigorous testing suitable for use beyond the earth’s atmosphere. To ensure we could create the precise specifications needed for the microgravity friendly object, we used stereolithography (SLA) and a plastic called ClearVue. This meant that after the finishing processes were applied, not only would the glass look realistic, it would also be humidity and moisture resistant for testing.
The model was eventually hand-finished inside and out using 800 wet grade paper to remove any layering and provide a smooth texture. To achieve the glass-like appearance, it was then masked and clear lacquered on both sides. The glass, which comprised of six component parts, was subject to many pre and post production checks by the Ogle team. The prototype was then tested in microgravity at the ZARM Drop Tower in Germany where it was approved for space flight.