It takes a lot of fuel to launch a rocket into space. In fact, 98 percent of a rocket’s mass at launch is already taken up just by the fuel itself. Add to that the volume and weight of all the equipment needed while on a mission, and long-term exploration to places like the moon or Mars can quickly get out of reach.
So can 3D printing help astronauts pack lighter?
To make it possible, we need to figure out how to use materials that can be found once the crew is in space. And we also need to figure out how to make the process work in the vacuum and microgravity of space.
Engineers Jun Yang from Western University and Zheng Hong (George) Zhu from York University are developing artificial intelligence-enhanced methods for 3D printing that would be able to tackle these challenges.
We already have a pretty good idea of what’s in the soil on the moon or on Mars, but materials will behave differently than they do on Earth.
“On Earth, when 3D printing lays down layers, gravity helps bonding between layers. In space, bonding is weaker because there is no gravity,” said Zhu in a press release.
In places without an atmosphere, there’s also the problem of heat build up. On Earth, air circulates and prevents the printer from overheating. By contrast, the atmosphere is much thinner on the moon or on Mars.
To work through challenges of bonding and overheating, the team plans to experiment with actual space materials. They are also building a two-metre square vacuum chamber — big enough to fit both a 3D printer and an AI-enhanced robot to operate it.
The goal is to learn patterns and workarounds to compensate for any issues. With less equipment needed at launch, less fuel would be needed to get into space. In turn, the carbon footprint of space exploration would be lowered significantly.
At the same time, 3D printing in space has upsides for items that we struggle to print on Earth. For instance, soft tissues for medical applications might collapse under their own weight in the conditions needed for printing. Skin grafts or organs might one day be manufactured in the microgravity of space and sent back to Earth for transplantation.
This is an exciting time for research, where disciplines cross in sometimes unexpected and delightful ways. As we continue to push the frontiers, it will be fascinating to see where we go.