In 2011, Made In Space created the first 3D printer for microgravity; what looked like science fiction suddenly became reality. Since then, at least 15 experimental 3D printers have been tested aboard Zero-G flights around the world. Propelled by corporations, academic institutions, and space agencies, this type of 3D printing research has seen success, growing from a few printers tested occasionally between 2011 and 2018 to half a dozen in 2022 alone.
Looking back at 2011, it can be remembered as a year of transition for the space industry, primarily because it was the beginning of the end for Nasaof the space shuttle program, which made its last flight in July of the same year. With a budget cut to go with it, NASA will soon turn to private industry for many of its space needs. One company, in particular, was keen to leave its mark. Known today as the company that creates 3D printers for the International Space Station (ISS), Made In Space was born Singularity University seeks to fill a gap in spatial fabrication.
Initially, the founders of Made In Space believed that 3D printing and manufacturing in space would “dramatically change the way we think about space exploration, marketing, and mission design today.”
Like Made In Space (now part of red cable), other companies have also decided to test their 3D printing technology in parabolic flights. For example, in 2016 engineering firm and regular NASA contractor Techshot (also acquired by Redwire) partnered with manufacturer nScrypt create the first bio-printer in microgravity and test it in an aircraft piloted by the Zero Gravity Corporationwhich operates weightless flights from US airports.
Flying 30,000 feet (about 9,144 meters) above the Gulf of Mexico, the plane simulated weightlessness while the bioprinter created heart and vascular structures using human stem cells. Like Made In Space, Techshot and nScrypt then sent the bioprinter to the US National Laboratory from the ISSwhere astronauts use it to make test impressions of human knee cartilage and other human tissue.
The history of manufacturing in space
The idea of manufacturing in space has long posed several obvious challenges, primarily issues of “gravity”, quality controls and raw material sourcing. However, once in place, in-situ manufacturing has the potential to reduce reliance on Earth’s resource resupply, making survival in space a little easier.
For decades, in-space manufacturing has been studied as a method of producing parts and components in orbit that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain immediately or at all. In the late 1960s, Soviet cosmonauts conducted the first welding experiments in space as part of their research into space fabrication. Over the next decade, the United States began experimenting with space fabrication at Skylab, the first space station launched by NASA.
But the gateway to space fabrication lies in research into parabolic flights that can replicate zero-gravity conditions in an aircraft right here on Earth. By alternating upward and downward arcs, they provide the microgravity environment needed for scientists to conduct research without traveling through space. This simulation of weightlessness may have begun in the 1960s with the first flying space laboratories aboard US military aircraft. However, it has expanded to include several private companies, such as the American company Zero-G and the French company Novespace.
Parabolic flights: a pit stop for 3D printing in orbit
With more options to recreate the unique weightlessness of space, we have seen a series of printers that have been successfully tested in parabolic flight. For example, in late 2016, Luke Carter of Laboratory of advanced materials and processes (AMP Lab) at University of Birmingham demonstrated metal 3D printing in microgravity aboard three separate parabolic flights. By creating a printing process similar to Directed Energy Deposition (DED) and using aluminum wire as the raw material, Carter and his team created a nearly clean-shaped piece.
Then in 2017, the Canadian Reduced Gravity Experiment Design Challenge (CAN-RGX), supported by the National Research Council and the Canadian Space Agencychose two teams to test their 3D printing experiments in parabolic flights. TEAM AVAILABILITY (Analysis of viscosity and inertia in liquids) of the University of Toronto built a system that controls the flow of a viscous liquid (corn syrup, in this case) through 15 different nozzles, and the iSSELab (Interfacial Science and Surface Engineering Lab) team, which spun off from the University of Albertacollected data from 3D printing materials in a reduced-gravity environment.
The following year, a European parabolic flight plane to New Zealand took scientists from the Space Utilization Technology and Engineering Center of the chinese academy of sciences (CAS) to test the first DLP ceramic 3D printer in microgravity. Following this successful event, NASA selected Associate Professor Gregory Whiting and his research group to test and model how functional 3D printing materials work in lunar gravity. Whiting’s research group, the Boulder Experimental Electronics and Manufacturing Laboratoryprepared for two parabolic flights in 2021.
At that time, engineering students from Munich University of Applied Sciences built a 3D printer with an extruder to dispense a liquid photopolymer that took off on the European Space Agency (ESA) 74th campaign of parabolic flights from Paderborn-Lippstadt airport in Germany.
Some memorable zero gravity 3D printing experiences in 2022 include Space Foundryelectronic printing tests from space, supported by NASA Flight Opportunities and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR). In addition, UC Berkeley research teams tested the “replicator,” a light-based 3D printer, on May 10, printing more than 100 objects. Additionally, a German consortium tested its patented 3D printing process and, for the first time, used metal powders to 3D print in zero gravity.
This is just a taste of what is possible here on Earth, thanks to zero-gravity flight. These and other experiences that have taken place over the past few years can be found below.
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