According to a story in Space.com, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has awarded a $100,000 grant to a study to determine whether spacecraft and other systems could be build in space itself, using 3D printing technology and materials on hand.
Building spacecraft in space
One of the problems with building spacecraft is that they have to be fitted on top of rockets that launch them from the surface of the Earth. The International Space Station was launched in pieces and assembled in orbit in a process that took place more than a decade.
According to the Space.com account, NASA is looking into the possibility of using 3D printing technology and material at hand, either from asteroids or from orbiting space junk, to build spacecraft and other systems in space, ready for use. In this manner, much larger space systems such as telescopes or antennas than could be launched from Earth would be built in space, ready for use. Spacecraft could be built in orbit, needing only a little outfitting and a crew launched from the ground before they could be launched on a voyage of exploration. Even fuel could be gotten from extraterrestrial resources.
How 3D printing works
3D printing is a technology that may well revolutionize how things are manufactured. According to a recent story in Forbes Magazine, 3D printing consists of spraying a material layer by layer in a pre-programmed manner to create a 3D object. Just about everything can be created, from spare parts on demand to prefabricated homes. In theory, any material could be used, even biological to create replacement body parts. The applications are almost endless.
3D printing in space
According to the Daily Mail, NASA has already been looking at 3D printing technology to facilitate long-duration space voyages and outposts on the moon or Mars. The idea is that instead of having a store of spare parts and tools, astronauts on a spaceship going to Mars, for example, would have a 3D printer that could create a replacement item on demand if something breaks down in space, only having to carry the necessary material to create the item. Settlers on the moon or Mars would have the added advantage of having local materials to scavenge for creating custom made items.
Study to determine whether building spacecraft in space is practicable
The study related by Space.com will determine whether building space systems in space using 3D printing and material at hand is practicable. If so, further studies, including presumably a mission to test the concept. Other technologies, including robots that would gather the material from dead satellites and/or asteroids, would have to be developed for the process to be fully developed.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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