Thursday, January 31, 2013

3D Printing in Space...

SPACEnew - FABrication :: just posted an article titled Building a Lunar Base with 3D Printing where it reports Foster + Partners are teaming up with ESA to see how feasible 3D printing is with lunar soil.

From ESA's article on 3D printing structures on the Moon.

The article brings up many good points, including how the design of a prospective lunar base will be dictated by the 3D printing technology used to make it and that the process of 3D printing structures on the Moon using material found there, instead of transported from Earth, would reduce "logistics from Earth."

Absolutely it would -- if structures were created from lunar material, it would turn a visit to the Moon from a camping trip, or even an expedition, into something much more permanent and sustainable. The article also mentions how Italian space research firm Alta SpA is working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna on using 3D printing for structures on the Moon.

A cross-section of a conceptual 3D printed lunar structure.

Experimentation is developing different techniques that will eventually be used in the vacuum of space and on the moon's surface.  For instance, Giovanni Cesaretti of Alta said,
“The process is based on applying liquids but, of course, unprotected liquids boil away in vacuum. So we inserted the 3D printer nozzle beneath the regolith layer. We found small 2 mm-scale droplets stay trapped by capillary forces in the soil, meaning the printing process can indeed work in vacuum.”
ESA also has an article on the project which you can find here. It describes the system used -- the D-Shape printer -- which is essentially a giant gantry-style 3D printer that prints out structures instead of plastic parts. How long would it take to print out an entire building with the next generation printers going at a rate of 3.5 meter per hour? Monolite founder Enrico Dini who is also involved in the research, says one week.

The D-Shape printer makes structures and is being studied to develop techniques for printing in space.

And ESA isn't the only one talking about 3D printing in space. During the recent debut of Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining firm, the use of 3D printing was also mentioned. During their debut, no details were given on how or even if this was possible. But after seeing the work ESA and others are doing, it is clear that Deep Space's ambitions are very much rooted in processes that are becoming a reality right now.

Deep Space's conceptual artwork and their introductory video depict massive space colonies, including a Stanford torus under construction. To build massive space habitats that are permanently populated and large enough to house off-world artificial ecosystems in any sort of reasonable time frame will require a revolution in construction practices. Could an array of automated 3D printers working in parallel someday spin worlds out of asteroids? It very much looks like it.