Space factories

3D printing Moon bases, rockets, and… food?

The prime challenge of living in space — besides the inherent danger — is figuring out how to bring enough with you to survive. Equipment, oxygen, food and water all need to be hauled there: or could there be an alternative solution?

Every kilogram that must be hauled into space for human crew requirements represents one kilogram less that can be used for science experiments, for example. More capable rockets is one solution to this problem. But what about actually making the components and food you need on site?

The idea actually isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The European Space Agency (ESA), NASA and others are testing out 3D printing as a way to manufacture structures, rocket parts — and even pizza.

Looking really far ahead, ESA recently suggested that 3D printing could reduce the cost and complication of future lunar bases. «3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,» said Scott Hovland, of ESA’s human spaceflight team.

The first step is to find a structure that works. Astronauts could haul an inflatable dome with them, perhaps, but they would still require a heavy shield to protect against radiation and micrometeroids. A proposal from Foster + Partners suggests a shield with a structure similar to what you would see in a bird’s bone: lightweight hollow cavities, plus strength to hold itself up.

A 3D printer would build up the layers gradually, but right now the technology is a little slow: perhaps two metres per hour (6.6 feet per hour). A next-generation printer proposed by the UK’s Monolite could attain speeds of 3.5 metres per hour (11.5 feet per hour), or enough to put together a reasonablesized building in a week.

Structures are one issue, but feeding astronauts is a more pressing one. For those of us who know how full the fridge gets after only a few shopping trips, imagine how much would need to be hauled to survive months or years on the road.

In recent months, NASA gave a Phase 1 contract to Texan company Systems and Materials Research Consultancy, to explore the possibility of making food in space. One of NASA’s main aims is to «enable nutrient stability and provide a variety of foods from shelf stable ingredients,» the agency stated.

The food definitely has applications for space travel, but with NASA being an agency that advertises spinoffs, you can guarantee it’s also thinking of Earthly applications for the technology.

If food could be manufactured reliably and safely, imagine the difference it could make in handing out assistance in an area devastated by a hurricane, flood or other natural disaster.

Countries that are also having regular problems feeding the populace through their own agriculture could supplement their own efforts with 3D-printed food. It’s perhaps a little audacious to hope it could eliminate world hunger, but manufacturing food in this way would be a start towards it.

Or how about making rocket components themselves out of 3D-printed technology? It could reduce the cost of space missions because it could lead to on-site printing, making it easier to manufacture. No need to order out for special parts.

In July, NASA and Florida’s Aerojet Rocketdyne tested a rocket engine injector created through 3D printing. Happily, the tests went just fine: the agency and contractor put the component through a series of firings and were pleased with the results. If the process works in future tests, NASA says the injector could be made in a third of the time — four months, instead of over a year with traditional processes -and cost 70 per cent less.

While still in its infancy, 3D printing provides a possible route to solving a lot of problems in space exploration such as manufacturing things, and also hauling food and other items on long-distance voyages. Next job: making sure there’s a technician on hand to fix the printer off-planet if it breaks down from overuse!

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