The European Space Agency is investigates how the 3D printers and 3D printing technology could transform everything we think about space missions. Here's a look at 10 ways 3D printing could change space travel, courtesy of ESA scientists.
FIRST STOP: The 'Impossible' Made Real
"This design is a perfect example of additive manufacturing (AM)," ESA materials engineer Benoit Bonvoisin said in a statement. "These balls are hollow with a complex external geometry, making them incredibly light while remaining stiff. They simply could not have been manufactured in a single part, conventionally." [3D Printing In Space: A New Dimension (Photo Gallery)]
The lightness and stiffness of the ball makes it a good material for building structures like ultralight satellites. However, residue from the metallic beads used for cleaning of the 3d-printed object remains trapped inside, so the cleaning process needs refinement.
NEXT: Computer Designs See Real World Uses
NEXT: New Rules for Design
NEXT: Low Volume=Low Overhead
NEXT: Modelmaking Made Fast and Simple
NEXT: Testing Gear in 3D
NEXT: Other Possibilities Tested
Officials with ESA's Propulsion Engineering section have learned that 3D printing technology could provide a way of building the extremely complex shapes required by rocket nozzles and combustion chambers. A showerhead injector, with complex internal geometry and more than a hundred separate welds provided a challenge. For this item, the selective laser melting metal 3D printer technology must produce 150 micron-diameter holes studding the 25 mm-diameter showerhead, a seeming difficulty, but some suppliers report the capability to achieve this goal.
NEXT: Lightweight Lattices
Lattices provide vastly increased surface area compared to solid items, allowing for more radiative cooling. Similar 3D-printed lattices could serve as more durable thruster catalyst beds, or "propellant management devices" that sit inside propulsion tanks and act like sponges to prevent bubbles and keep thruster performance steady.
NEXT: Small Steps into Space
A few 3D-printed parts have made it up to orbit including a 3D-printed plastic toolbox flown up to the Columbus module of the International Space Station last year. NASA plans to fly a 3D-printing machine for plastics to the station.
ESA and the European Commission have embarked on a project to perfect the printing of space-quality metal components, entitled The AMAZE project – Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste & Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products.
NEXT: Future Visions for Space
Astronauts could use 3D printers to replace broken items, ESA officials said. The space agency has validated this approach by manufacturing and functionally testing parts that need repair during past manned missions, including screws, clamps and even plastic gloves.
Satellites could self-print new subsystems to provide new capabilities. Delicate parts could be manufactured on-orbit, avoiding the need to design parts to withstand the stresses of launch. Even down on Earth, many possibilities arise from the use of 3D, particularly in dramatically reducing the energy and mass needed for manufacturing, and shrinking the space industry's environmental footprint, according to ESA.
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