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3D printing as a space expedition optimization platform

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

One of the most significant challenges space missions face is the high cost per kilogram that satellites, probes, or spacecraft require to free themselves from Earth’s gravitational pull.1 The mission costs can increase dramatically due to heavier or larger payloads that require more prominent and more powerful launch vehicles, making the process of transporting materials from Earth extremely expensive. For example, it can cost up to $2 million to transport an ordinary brick to the moon. 2

3D printing technology has been employed to solve this problem and plays a crucial role in enabling the future of space travel. This technology is already being used for the production of low-cost satellites and also lighter and more efficient rockets to place payloads in orbit. Besides that, the aerospace industry is also focusing on 3D printed equipment parts - developing these parts using 3D printing approaches is cheaper and can also be more efficient thanks to the flexibility offered concerning geometries and types of materials available. 1 3

Figure 1: ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut working on the 3D Printer aboard the space station. 4

Made In Space Inc. revolutionized the space industry in 2014 by putting 3D printer models into orbit. The printer in question used a cast filament manufacturing process (FFF), which fed a continuous plastic strand through a heated extruder into a layer-by-layer tray to create 3D objects. For example, a Mars robot probe printed from a CAD file in orbit could be 30% lighter than one that has to withstand the stress of an Earth rocket launch. With this advance, spare parts would not need to be brought from Earth but rather manufactured on the way, making space exploration easier. 4, 5

3D printing technology can also be helpful for the in situ fabrication of surgical tools for long-term space missions, facilitating the production of customized medical assets on-demand, and minimizing spare medical consumables. Several recent studies have described the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of manufacturing thermoplastic surgical instruments using 3D printing. In addition, 3D printing medical tools such as Debakey forceps, flat forceps, right-angle tweezers, and even dental tools would bring countless benefits to the crew’s health, optimizing space missions. 6,7

Figure 2: 3D printed acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic medical tools. 7


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