The technology of 3D printing is taking off. From tiny home-based 3D printers to larger manufacturing. And of course, 3D printing is going to space with the International Space Station and beyond.
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This episode is sponsored by: Barkbox
Additive manufacturing – https://www.spilasers.com/application-additive-manufacturing/additive-manufacturing-a-definition/3D printing in space – Made in Space
Space Station 3-D Printer Builds Ratchet Wrench To Complete First Phase Of Operations
3D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration (3D Printing In Zero-G)
3D printing in space: The next revolution?
Can You 3D Print Metal Parts in Space? Of Course
Combination 3D Printer will Recycle Plastic in Space
Full Circle: NASA to Demonstrate Refabricator to Recycle, Reuse, Repeat
Asteroid-Mining Company 3D-Prints Object from Space Rock Metals
Planetary Resources & 3D Systems Reveal First Ever 3D Printed Object From Asteroid Metals
Archinaut – Made In Space
Bobiverse books – https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B06X15BL54
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 509, 3D Printing. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pam, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. I want to thank everyone out there who has joined our Astronomy Cast Patreon and supported our big end-of-year funding drive. It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, folks. Click on over to patreon.com/astronomycast or get yourself the tax-deductible deduction that you always dreamed of by donating to us. All the relevant links are at twitch.tv/cosmoquestx. Just look for it below the video.
Fraser: Excellent, as we mentioned in the last episode, Cosmo Quest definitely needs your help. So, if you’ve been holding off, now is the time both to support the work we do through direct donations, through Patreon, and through the upcoming Hangout-a-thon, which is gonna be just a couple of weeks away.
Pamela: Yes, December 22nd, 23rd, and into the wee hours of Christmas Eve.
Fraser: And if you are, say, one of the people who choose grants at large institutions, by all means, also, we would be glad to accept your money.
Fraser: The technology of 3D printing is taking off from tiny home-based 3D printers to larger manufacturing. And of course, 3D printing is going to space with the International Space Station and beyond. Pamela, you keep talking about 3D printers. You are a total 3D printer nerd.
Pamela: Well, and the weird thing is, I actually kind of avoid using them personally because I know my luck. I am the person that defines the tail end of the galaxy and distribution of luck. And it’s on the bad side. Someone has to be there. It’s me. And I know if I tried to print something, it would inevitably look like it had been left in the sun too long, it had been created by a drunk octopus.
Pamela: But I love what everyone else is doing with 3D printers.
Fraser: I gave my wife a 3D printer for, I think, her birthday one year. There is a little 3D printer you can get from Monoprice. And it’s very inexpensive, very small, but produces little 3D printed objects. She printed the little cat that comes with it and hasn’t used it since. We passed it along to my son. He hasn’t 3D printed anything with it.
Pamela: Oh no.
Fraser: They are still not ready for prime time. These things are complicated. They are hard to set up. They are hard to align everything perfectly and find the objects that you want to print, and make sure it works with your computer. And anyone who tells you that we are ready is a super 3D printing nerd, because it is still very much about – it’s an early adopter enthusiast kind of world right now.
Pamela: So, I have to admit, I don’t generally use our laser printer either, but the Glowforge, the Glowforge and I are one.
Fraser: Oh, yeah?
Pamela: So, subtractive printing I’m pretty good at.
Fraser: Like hacking things off of stuff.
Fraser: Just not adding things together. But you picked additive manufacturing and other 3D printing. So, where did you want to go with today’s episode? Because I’ve done a bunch of videos about some of this stuff, so I know quite a bit about it, about the state of it in terms of space exploration.
Pamela: Well, I feel almost like I should be interviewing you, then. I wanted to do an update now that the International Space Station has had its printer for more than two years. And we’re at the point where they are starting to get through that shakeout process of manufacturing things in space. Then they are actually shipping them back down to Earth to quality assess them. And so, tell us what you know, Fraser.
Fraser: Sure, yeah.
Pamela: And we’ll just flip the dial.
Fraser: Oh, great. Well, you were engineering this episode while I am in Hawaii. So, it makes sense. Yeah, so, the idea of 3D printing in space is one that actually makes a ton of sense when you think about it because there is only so many things that you can send to other worlds, that you can send to the moon or Mars or to the astronauts onboard the Space Station. And if they need some specific gadget, they can’t just go down to the hardware store and buy the appropriate wrench and then go back and work on it.
And if you’ve ever done any kind of home renovation, you know that experience. We’re like, no, I don’t have this kind of tape. That kind of a part. And then, you just go down to the hardware store and you pick up the replacement, and you go back, and you use it. And they don’t have that ability. They’ve got to prepare in advance every single thing that they are ever gonna do. So, they added a gadget to the International Space Station, which is a 3D printer, but it’s designed to work in space. And it was created by a company called Made In Space.
And that’s been a couple of years in operation now. And that exact situation came up. An astronaut needed a specific kind of wrench. They didn’t have one onboard the Station. They printed it in the 3D printer and were able to use it to be able to make a fix onboard the Station. And since then, the company – they own the printer and they lease it out to NASA, but also, other people can print objects on the Station as well. So, if you’ve got like jewelry that you want printed in space, or people are wanting to test out creating say, medical devices and things like that. The 3D printer onboard the Station now is open for business.
Pamela: And that first tool that they put together was a 3-inch, 1-pound ratchet wrench. And part of what they are trying to figure out is, what even are the policies and procedures that you have to go through with 3D printing things in space. What are –
Fraser: That might have gone down.
Pamela: – the safety concerns? So, they have each plan before they print them, getting signed off on by a variety of different people, including the safety office, to make sure that well, they don’t do anything crazy up there.
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Fraser: And this was the real question because here on earth, when you 3D print things, additive printing, you’re kind of relying on gravity. You are layering, you are aligning the object that you want to print with the force of gravity here on earth, and you’re layering up from there, layer after layer after layer. And then when you’re finished, you pull this object out. And one of the unknowns was, would this even work in microgravity. And it turns out they were able to come up with a solution that actually did.
Right now, the printer is a fairly standard 3D printer that you’re accustomed with, but what people are planning as the future of 3D printing in space is pretty amazing. And I’m not sure where you want to go with this, but in terms of there is plans to build structures on the moon and Mars using 3D printing, and in fact, even assemble space telescopes and space stations in space using 3D printing.
Pamela: And the thing that really got me and made me want to do this episode at this point in time is, we now have a recycling 3D printer, which essentially means meh, don’t need this thing anymore. That’s okay. We’ll reuse the parts.
Pamela: And in space, you have a very limited number of resources. And this offers the opportunity to say, oh, huh, I need to have 3-inch imperial units wrench instead of a 3-centimeter metric wrench. And they know those things are nowhere near in size. And you can just recycle one into the other with admittedly leftover bits.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah. And again, that is absolutely going to be the future is this idea that you don’t know what you’re going to need. You know you’re gonna need parts. Things are gonna break. And all you do is you send the raw material. You send up a jug of plastic pieces, of the little beads that will become the feed stock for your 3D printer. And then you’re set. And then, of course, as they develop new technologies, as they learn how to 3D print different things, being able to 3D print metals, being able to 3D print plastics, glass, all kinds of different structures, then you’re well equipped to be able to handle whatever you’re going to need.
We’re still a long way away from the more complicated electronics and things like that, but even some versions of that are now in the works as well. And so, you can imagine. And then, you match that with acquiring your resources in space – so, mining an asteroid, pulling metals, pulling various minerals off of these asteroids and bringing them back to refill the supply hoppers for your 3D printers that are operating on your space station. And you can envision this future where as new devices are invented down on Earth, the designs are uploaded to the space station, and they are able to start printing them.
So, I sort of imagine this future where the Martian children can still stay – they can get the 3D spinners, their little spinners. And they can get various – whatever the new kids are – the Rubik’s cubes because they will just come out of their 3D printers at the same speed that they are showing up for the Earth children.
Pamela: And this is some really cool applications in terms of when we think of the Apollo 13 emergency where they were trying to figure out how do we rescue ourselves. And if you’ve seen the movie, they come out with that box of stuff and dump it out, and are like, okay, folks at NASA, go through this box of stuff and brainstorm the solution.
Well, now, you’re not limited on what you’re able to use. You’re limited on what materials you’re able to use, but you can make them into any shape you want.
Pamela: So, future mistakes are going to have much easier solutions.
Fraser: And the other part of the future of this is that the actual construction – when a space craft has launched from here or when a space telescope is launched – a good example of this is the James Webb Space Telescope. The whole space telescope, they’ve had to design it and a lot of the cost overruns and the issues that they’ve had is because you have to build the thing down here on Earth. You have to make it be able to fit within an existing rocket ferry, and you have to be able to have it withstand both the gravity of Earth, the rigors of the launch, and then be able to unfurl itself while it’s in space to be able to perform its actual mission.
Well, again, Made In Space, the same people who built the 3D printer for the space station, are developing this new gadget called the Archinaut. And what it is, is awesome. It is this three-armed little spacecraft that will propel itself around. And it is equipped with the raw material for 3D printing. So, it’s gonna have jugs of the various parts that are required. And then, it spins out of a extruder nozzle the various girders and it can extrude girders of almost any length, as long as – it just sort of pulls them out of its mouth, like a magician. A magician is constantly pulling out handkerchiefs out of their mouth.
So, imagine a little spacecraft that is extruding girders out of this print part. And then, it pulls out one of those parts, and then it pulls out all of the attachment fittings, the nuts, the bolts. And then it uses these three arms to move over and attach it to the other part that is already done and screw in the attachment joints and away you go. And so, it totally changes the way we have to think about building a structure in space because up until this point, we have to build these things here on earth. They have to be able to survive the rigors of space flight, and they have to be able to deploy.
What if you have parts that you just assemble together in space that never have to deal with the rigors of earth, attach a bunch of solar panels, attach a bunch of computers, cameras, whatever you need. And now, you’ve got a structure that can perform some kind of mission in space. And that is just around the corner. We should see Archinaut launch in just a couple of years now.
Pamela: I love how the imagery you use is Archinaut vomiting all of the future structures used in outer space.
Fraser: Yeah, like a magician, making them appear wondrously.
Pamela: Yeah. No, it’s gonna hairball out.
Fraser: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, it’s gonna cough out another girder.
Pamela: Now, one of the complaints that a lot of people have about 3D printing is the rate at which it takes. And so, when you’re sitting there waiting for your wrench, and it takes it a couple of hours to many hours to print out that wrench. And you’re thinking, I could have just driven to Lowe’s and driven back, except you’re at the ISS, so maybe not.
But we don’t actually think in our day-to-day lives about how long it takes for the things that we deal with to actually get made. We don’t think about the time at the assembly plant, the time for the injection molding, the time that goes into these things. And one of the cool things that’s being discovered is as they’re starting to use 3D printing to create house. With structures like houses, it’s actually way faster to 3D print them. And you get these amazing organic-looking buildings.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah. So, here on earth, people are starting to test out some of these ideas. I’ve seen some 3D printers where they build – it’s almost like a crane that sits in the middle. And it has an arm and it reaches out in a circular area. And it can create a circular house. And spraying down layers of concrete. As long as it is kept fed with the raw materials, it can build up the structure in a surprisingly short period of time, and have all of, as you said, fairly complicated structures.
It will have room for all of the electrical sockets, all of the windows, the doors, all of the parts that are gonna need to be put in after the fact. And you can actually build a structure surprisingly quickly. And this same method is being considered for the moon. So, the European Space Agency has been doing a lot of experimentation with 3D printers to use simulated lunar regolith, lunar rock that’s there to be able to take this stuff, grind it up, and then mix it with another couple of chemicals to create a kind of a concrete. And then be able to spray this down.
And they should be able to make roads and walls and habitable structures on the surface of the moon just using the raw materials that are available to them. And similar experiments have been done with Mars as well. So, you can imagine again, this future where you send perhaps days, weeks, years in advance, a spacecraft, a 3D printing rover that shows up, uses sunlight to start gobbling up the Martian regolith and then vomiting out houses and greenhouses and rocket pads, and roads, and all kinds of stuff, bit by bit, based on the energy that’s falling on its solar panels. It’s pretty exciting.
Pamela: And one of the really cool things, especially with the moon, is it was realized many years ago by folks doing research down in Tennessee that lunar regolith has the unique characteristic that when you heat it up using microwave light, it solidifies. It basically melts into this really cool, hard ceramic surface. So, we’re in a position where we can extrude things out in the shape we need, zap them with microwave, and end up with an especially fine, smooth, solid surface.
And with 3D printing, it’s also really easy to do double-walled structures. You simply have two extruder nozzles side by side, and you can fill between the walls with whatever you need for radiation protection, for insulation here on Earth. And it’s a new way of thinking about design that is kind of made for the modern future of well, let’s just hide everything in walls.
Fraser: It was interesting, if you read the book Artemis by Andy Weir, author of The Martian, the lunar colony that’s built up is done using the aluminum oxide that’s found on the surface of the moon. And Andy Weir did the calculations and found that you had an enormous excess of oxygen as you used up the aluminum that was in these rocks.
And so, you can imagine, again, you can imagine bringing in the rocks, heating them up, extracting the aluminum out of it, outgassing the oxygen, using that for breathing and mixing it with hydrogen to make water and so on. And at the same time, building structures out of all of this aluminum that’s just sitting there on the surface of the moon in this pounded-up powder that you can just use. So, I think once we understand this 3D printing technology better, once we get a chance to actually automate more and more of this, we’re gonna discover how much of the solar system we are able to start reshaping to our own needs.
It’s a pretty amazing time. And it’s one of those exponential technologies. Once you can build a rover that can build most of another rover from the raw parts that it finds on an asteroid, then those two rovers build four rovers, and then build 16 rovers, and then extract resources and bring them back to Earth. So, we are, I think around the corner, within the next few decades of a whole new revolution in resource extraction from the solar system.
Pamela: And this is one of those things that, unlike last week, where we talked about ion drives and how the way ion drives get used in the Star Wars universe, for instance on TIE Fighters. Actual ion drivers just aren’t gonna get you going that fast with that high of a mass in zero to everything all at once. But with 3D printing, it really feels like we are on the way to accomplishing the things that we’re finding in science fiction. There are candy manufacturers that are making food out of 3D printing. There are other kinds of manufacturers that are making less appetizing food out of 3D printing.
We have the homes, the toys. It feels like we’re only a breath away from Cory Doctorow’s vision of 3D printers printing 3D printers, where the real issue becomes who owns the right to what and how do inventors get paid for their inventions. This is gonna change how we think about copyright law and at the same time, it’s gonna be a great equalizer that really makes it possible for anyone to have anything.
Fraser: But it really provides this equalization. So, you can imagine people who are living on an asteroid, or people who are living on the moon or Mars and they are far away from Earth. And they do have to wait a long time for any supplies to make it to them. That the moment a new discovery is made in manufacturing, the moment a new design is invented, a new toy, whatever, that information propagates at the speed of light throughout the solar system, and everybody gets to start creating those objects on their own 3D printers, because the raw materials that are here on earth, there is nothing special about the Earth.
All the same raw materials that are available on Earth are available throughout the solar system. It’s just the configuration. It just happens to be that life on Earth has happened to configure these things into trees and oil and so on. And it’s a matter of us just cracking each one of these different chemical structures in a way that we can reproduce them. It’s totally Star Trek.
Pamela: And it’s actually totally Bobiverse where we have a good idea of the factory ship going out and settling down on our resource-intense world and shooing out sister ships and going on and continuing the exploration one replicator at a time.
Fraser: Yeah, as long as you’ve got enough raw material, you can keep generating more versions. And of course, the sort of extrapolation of that, you’ve talked about the Bobiverse, this idea of Von Neumann probes that you create a spacecraft that is designed to make more versions of itself, 3D printing more versions of itself. It moves to a new star system, finds the asteroid belt, sets up its factories, builds more copies of itself. Those copies are sent to other worlds where they make more copies of themselves. And that’s how you explore the entire galaxy one star system at a time. You just do it 100 to 400 billion times.
Pamela: And this is where we’re gonna be looking at a new economy, a new way of thinking, and a new way of not being limited in what we have access to. I, for one, welcome our 3D printer overlords. What’s the first thing you’re really hoping to see go mainstream with 3D printers?
Fraser: Well, I think, like you said, I’m most interested in their applications in space, obviously. And the exploration of space will be funded by the resource acquiring from space that we won’t become a truly solar system-spanning civilization until we have started to make mining in space profitable. But the second it is profitable, then it’s this virtual cycle that just goes and goes and goes.
And I really do love the idea, like I think that I’m with Jeff Bezos on this, that the future of humanity depends on us learning to master space because we are pooping where we live. We’re here on earth and we’re going to the bathroom, and then we’re drinking it. And then, we’re breathing it. And then, we’re – and I mean that in the – with our pollution, and with our industrial waste, and with what we’re putting out into the atmosphere. All these things. And we’re doing this because we want stuff, and things, and cars, and airplanes. And we want to be able to do all the stuff.
Well, what if we can have all of that stuff. We don’t have to dig up coal from the ground. We can have solar panels that were manufactured out in space that are beaming energy back to earth. We don’t have to go and strip mine the side of a mountain. We can have a ball of platinum be brought back through the atmosphere gently. And then use that to manufacture something.
So, I think – and space, who cares? Space is just – you can pollute space all you like. It’s big. It can handle it. It’s Earth, where Earth does one thing, which is – all we know – this is the best place in the universe for life. And so, I really can’t wait until we start to see those first glimpses that the future is here, that we are making more money than it costs us to be able to extract resources from space itself.
And when that starts to happen, then I think that’s when this sort of bold future begins. And we have no idea what the end of that is. What about you?
Pamela: I was just gonna say I want a nice 3D-printed house in the woods somewhere.
Fraser: That would be cool.
Pamela: So, this has been great, Fraser. You enjoy Hawaii. You get out.
Fraser: I will.
Pamela: You enjoy the volcanoes. Do not get eaten by the lava.
Fraser: There is no liquid lava on the island right now for like the first time in 100 years.
Fraser: So, you don’t have to worry about me.
Pamela: And we will be back next week.
Fraser: All right, maybe. We’ll have to talk about that. I might be in transit next week.
Fraser: All right.
Pamela: We’ll sort. Okay.
Fraser: Thanks, Pamela.
Female Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at email@example.com, Tweet us at Astronomy Cast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley. The outro music is by Travis Cyril, and the show was edited by Suzie Murph.
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Duration: 30 minutes