3D Printers are everywhere these days. And they’re not just for fabricating quick-and-dirty sample parts for your next design review. Giant cement printers are building your homes. Tiny bio-printers are growing replacement organs in a lab. And now, humanity’s next stepping-stone to the stars could be a 3D-printed space station. A new company, Made in Space, is developing orbiting 3D printers which would use a generic ‘feedstock’ as its printing material, which would then be used to fabricate parts, and assembled into habitable space stations, or even Lunar colonies. This feedstock – or ‘gray goo’ as Made in Space co-founder Jason Dunn calls it – could be easily launched from Earth, or converted from the nearly 1,900 tons of space junk floating uselessly in low-Earth orbit. Additionally, broken parts could be fed back into the printer and re-manufactured with the same material, instead of being shipped back to earth, and waiting for a replacement.
“It just makes more logical and economical sense to print parts for spacecraft and space stations in space,” says the company’s founder. “If parts do not need to withstand the G-forces of being launched, their mass can be reduced by 30 percent.” And with payload launch costs averaging $12,000 per pound, a 30% reduction would be significant.
The printers would be very versatile, able to use may different types of feedstock based on the item to be fabricated. In orbit, plastic, metal, and rubber would be used most often to manufacture parts for a space station or ship, layer by excruciatingly thin layer. On a planetary colony, however, the printer could use Martian soil or Lunar regolith, combined with a light superglue-like binder, to construct entire structures from the dust.
Made in Space was conceived in the summer of 2009, during the annual Singularity University program at the NASA Ames Research Center. At this point, Made in Space is still in its infancy. The company has already successfully printed some space-ready parts, but it has yet to determine how the printers will perform in zero gravity. The first test will be to print small parts during short, 20-minute suborbital flights, aboard private commercial space vehicles. Assuming the printers perform well, the next step could be a large-scale trial aboard the International Space Station.