For the past several years, a serious discussion has been circulating about returning to the moon sometime this decade, and then for the first time, setting foot on Mars. For both scenarios, it’s not a matter of if, but when. While rapid advancements in a variety of technologies are boosting the viability of space programs, one technology, in particular, is likely to carry much of the responsibility for the future of human space travel and the possibility of living on distant planets: additive manufacturing.
Many space-focused companies are already using additive manufacturing to create rocket parts, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, while some, such as Relativity Space, have even 3D printed entire rockets. 3D printing parts for rockets has numerous advantages. They tend to be cheaper, lighter, stronger, and can be produced faster than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.
Beyond creating parts, additive manufacturing can also be a means of constructing actual buildings in space, ranging anywhere from housing to research facilities requiring long-term occupancy. With lunar-based additive manufacturing, transporting building materials is no longer necessary—we could simply travel to the moon with a 3D printer and use materials found on the surface to print houses, laboratories, and more. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. The ESA and Foster + Partners have seen great success using simulated lunar soil to 3D print structural elements such as bricks and beams, and NASA has followed suit with its own similar project, the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.
As groundbreaking as it all sounds, a 3D printer on the moon would not be the first 3D printer in space. The International Space Station is home to Made In Space’s Additive Manufacturing Facility, the first permanent 3D printer to operate in low Earth orbit. Installed in 2016, the AMF has produced more than 200 tools and parts, including medical supplies for astronauts stationed at the ISS as well as replacement parts, commercial products, and even art.
But deploying additive manufacturing in this new space race brings one major challenge as well—how do you know how additive will work in a different environment or on a different planet?
Unprecedented research could be conducted if humans were to live on the moon, but for a long time that didn’t make sense.
How could we live on the moon without housing, and how could we possibly transport the kinds of building materials needed to create homes on faraway planets? Much work was required to get the Made in Space Additive Manufacturing Facility up and running to the capacity it is today. Think of the differences required to bake a cake at a high altitude, and then multiply those difficulties. 3D printing in normal earthly conditions can be tricky enough; doing it without gravity presents an entirely new set of challenges.
Today, we test airplanes for their performance against turbulence, pressure changes and weather using simulation software. A robust simulation solution could recreate the atmosphere for space as well, allowing us to answer, “will it work in space? or on Mars?,” before printing the parts at their final destination.
Wherever you are, on Earth or in space, additive manufacturing is much more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive without simulation.
Simulation addresses design and manufacturing challenges early on in the development cycle, saving time and eliminating costly errors. With the variables encountered on distant planets, including limited materials, differences in atmosphere, gravity and more, simulating additive manufacturing processes can mitigate potential distortions that could occur during the design and manufacturing stages in advance, all with less need for physical testing.
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