Ep. 355: Maker Space: 3D Printing Exploration

Getting stuff into space is complicated and expensive. And what do you do when your fancy space gadget breaks. You print out a new one, of course, with your fancy space 3D printer. It turns out, space exploration is one of the best uses for this technology.

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This episode is sponsored by:  Swinburne Astronomy Online, 8th Light

Show Notes


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Announcer: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 355: 3D Printing Exploration. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville and the Director of Cosmoquest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing Fraser?
Fraser: I am doing great. We’ve worked through most of the technical issues that we were experiencing last week, but apparently we have new technical issues. But hopefully the folks on the audio recording won’t even notice because once again, Preston will come to our aid and edit everything beautifully together.
Pamela: Yeah, for those of you who aren’t laughing at us as we try and do this live, we have about three seconds of lag between when something is said and when it is heard by the other person. So it’s going to be like one of those awkward satellite broadcasts with the foreign correspondent that you sometimes see on the nightly news.
Fraser: Yeah come on, these messages have to go all the way to space and back. All right, well let’s get crackin’. We’ll get on with the show then.
Announcer: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on-demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember that’s www.8thlight.com. Drop them a note. 8th Light, software is their craft.
Fraser: So getting stuff into space is complicated and expensive. What do you do when your fancy space gadget breaks? You print out a new one of course with your fancy space 3D printer. It turns out space exploration is one of the best uses for this technology.
Pamela, before we get into sort of your experience with 3D printing and space I just wanted to regal you with one of my recent anecdotes which was I was fortunate enough to be invited to SpaceX, which is in Los Angeles, and we were there taking a look at the technology they have. One of the things they have is the ability to 3D print titanium. So one of the engineers gave me a block of this titanium and I took a look at it and he said, ‘Go ahead and look at a light.’ So you take this block of titanium and you peer through it and I could see micron sized holes, like it was half transparent. And that’s the resolution of the 3D printing.
So now a lot of the fancy 3D parts that are made over at SpaceX are done using 3D printers to print titanium in three-dimensions. So that’s my cool anecdote. So 3D printers in space, for space?
Pamela: They’re awesome. See I have nothing that cool that I can share. The best I can say is every first experience I’ve even seen anyone have with a 3D printer has involved making something that looks like it melted horrifically in the sun. But the thing is once you actually get them working you can do all sorts of amazing things and there’s zero waste. This is the real awesome promise of 3D printing. Right now with manufacturing most of what we do is subtractive. You take a chunk of some substance and you cut away the parts you don’t need and you end up with a whole bunch of leftover stuff.
In woodworking you end up with sawdust that then goes on to be animal bedding. In woodworking that’s kind of okay, but when you start to get to metalworking now you have all of this stuff that you can now expend more energy melting again and sometimes you just end up with a whole lot of slag and piles outside creating super fun sites.
But with 3D printing you take your alloy, you put it into the machine, it melts what it needs, and it’s an additive process where it just layers the stuff a bit at a time on top. And in addition to not having waste, because it’s an additive process, you can also build multilayered things in a much cheaper way. This has become especially important with ultrasound machines where the sensors that are used on ultrasound machines to either peer into a knee that has a torn ligament or while looking into the side of a spacecraft to see if there’s damage in the fuselage; those types of machines you need an additive process or a whole bunch of very carefully put together pieces to build it. So we can bring down costs by using this new additive process.
Fraser: All right, so people who have never experienced, never used, never seen a 3D printer – what kind of a machine are we looking at here?
Pamela: The best way to explain it is if you can imagine a cake decorating thing that you can move around on a printer and as it moves around it extrudes a thin layer of material. How small that thin layer of material is depends on the machine, depends on the substance that’s being used. We currently have 3D printers that work on everything from plastics up through well, titanium. So with any of these different materials that you can melt under high heat or melt using different chemical reactions – there’s a few that work that way where you have a powdery substance that you mix with something that turns into a liquid that then dries hard.
With all of these different machines you’re extruding the stuff out basically your cake topper and moving it around to layer upon layer upon layer of the stuff upwards. If you’ve ever built with Lego blocks it’s kind of a similar process; if you build things a layer at a time, except this time instead of having to put down Lego blocks you’re putting down molecules and that’s kind of cool.
Fraser: So what is the typical resolution of these machines? How small of things can you build with them?
Pamela: Again, it totally depends on what you’re building with. When it comes to plastics you quite often, with the lower cost machines, you have a much lower resolution so here you’re looking at half a millimeter in some cases, sometimes tenth of a millimeter resolution. But then, as you start to get to more costly machines and you start getting to work with metals instead these faster-drying and less blobby substances with these higher cost machines you start to get down to the tenth hundredth of a millimeter resolution instead.
Fraser: Now do you have a 3D printer?
Pamela: I do not personally have a 3D printer. We have a 3D printer at the Stem Center where I work but it’s a science technology engineering and mathematics interdisciplinary research center so we have a little bit of everything and part of that little bit of everything is a 3D printer that has been used to make everything from random bits and pieces we need for science demos to printing out a model of the asteroid Vesta. And what’s really neat is NASA is recognizing how powerful 3D printing can be for education where they’re starting to release models of the different asteroids, of the comets, of the planets. And this allows people who can’t see to actually get their hands on an asteroid and start to understand – well they knew what a potato felt like, now they know that an asteroid actually isn’t that different.
3D printing is completely changing the way we can teach astronomy to the visually impaired. It’s changing how we’re able to do demos and it’s bringing down the cost of spacecraft construction itself. There are a number of different Cansat programs that are looking to 3D print the housings, all of the lightweight bits that hold all of their instrumentation together are now starting to get 3D printed. We’re not doing that though.
Fraser: Right and this was I guess the question that I was going to be asking you was what parts of spacecraft, what kinds of – I mean I mentioned my story about seeing the 3D printed titanium at SpaceX, as the technology gets better and better and better and better you can imagine all of the kinds of spacecraft parts that they’re going to be 3D printing. So what is sort of the current and sort of futureish uses of 3D printing in space exploration?
Pamela: Well the European Space Agency has what they call the Amazed Project. This is one of those long acronyms that seems kind of forced. It’s the additive manufacturing aiming towards zero waste and efficient production of high-tech metal products. Yeah, so they have that long acronym that’s just called the Amazed Project and they’re actually working to 3D print an entire spacecraft. So they’ve been working on this for a couple of years now. They haven’t launched anything but they are hoping in the next year to start going into some space testing of what they’re working on.
Fraser: Right. And so this is – I mean this is just the precursor to the inevitable future where we look at what’s going to happen with say the planetary resources and these space mining colonies and companies like that that are going to be looking to gather minerals in space and just set the up into facilities orbiting the planet. And then you can imagine in the future there are 3D printers in space that are then using the latest plans and they’re 3D printing spacecraft that will then help explore the solar system. And so at no point did you need to bring this stuff from the planet. You’re just building it up there in space for whatever mission.
It’s an astonishing idea.
Pamela: And what’s really cool about where we’re going with this is it’s not just building things, but it’s also being able to repair things and aim toward self-sufficiency.
One of the arguments for having human beings in space has always been we have hands, we have the ability to go out and pick up a rock and decide it’s cool and then start digging around and completely change our goal for the day based on finding something that’s cool. Well, with 3D printers we have the ability to augment everything we do with spur of the moment, oh I need this tool. So instead of taking everything under the sun with us to Mars we instead take a 3D printer with us to Mars and now we’re able to create everything from our favorite toys back home to a new version of the Pathfinder rover to things that we can’t even imagine yet, but we may be inspired to create along the way.
It also starts to raise a lot of fascinating issues about copyright and there’s actually a really awesome short-story by Cory Doctorow called Printcrime. I sometimes wonder about what’s going to happen when people realize that they can scan in their Tupperware and then print all new Tupperware without having to pay the exorbitant fee. Currently though 3D printing isn’t quite as cheap as going to Target, but that is the future that we’re aiming toward.
Fraser: And so you can imagine this future where for example, engineers are Earth figure out a better way to have some kind of structural part or they’re designing, they’re building the blueprints for extending the Mars colony and they know all of the parts that they need to build, they know all the bricks they need to create, and then they just transfer all of the information along to the colonists and then the colonists start churching out the parts and then assembling them and to build up the structure. So they don’t need smelters and factories and all this kind of stuff, they just need some way that they can turn the iron-rich Martian rocks into structural elements and let the machine handle a lot of the more complicated elements.
So again, as I mentioned, this whole idea is super exciting. I know that – and I don’t know if it’s happened already but there was going to be a 3D printer that was going to be sent to the International Space Station and I think it went on one of the recent launches, right?
Pamela: It went up in September.
Fraser: And what are the NASA folks going to be using this for?
Pamela: Well right now they’re looking to test does a 3D printer actually work well in space? This is actually one of those stupid problems that zero G just makes things way harder. Ballpoint pens were a problem that we had to overcome where the ink doesn’t gravitationally go down towards the roller part of that roller pen. And with the 3D printers you now have to keep everything under pressure and you can’t rely on gravity to make sure that that layer of material you’re adhering actually goes down and adheres to the base.
And so there’s been a specially created 3D printer. It was launched in September. They’re planning to start doing lots and lots of testing in 2015. Right now I’m sure they’re going through the whole, ‘Oh dear, what I just created looks like the machine had an accident of a terrible kind.’ All 3D printers I think go through that phase. But so far I haven’t been able to find any pictures of anything they’ve printed. But it is launched and all the news articles are still saying they’re aiming for 2015 space testing with things they built.
Fraser: At the same time though you can imagine the microgravity of being onboard the International Space Station might give them an advantage as well because here on Earth as they do the 3D printing, as you said, it’s this additive process where you’ve got gravity that’s holding down the shape that you’re trying to build and then you’re adding it up layer by layer by layer. But you can imagine if you’re in space, and if you really wrap your head around what this could be, you could imagine almost like the object floating inside the 3D printer itself and it could be adding on multiple dimensions at the same time or rotating the object and adding material as necessary.
So if we lived in microgravity maybe we’d be able to spend more time and really get a sense of it. And I think that is a precursor, that’s the understanding how this 3D printing works in the microgravity of Earth orbit is really the key to making this technology work for us in the long-term.
Pamela: Unfortunately, this is one of those problems where the imagination versus reality is harshly different. One of the problems that you have with things like the International Space Station is the sucker vibrates, the sucker moves, it jiggles. As people move round, as they bounce off the walls and all of that instability means that if you have your inertial object happily floating in the center of the printer, when the printer bumps it’s not going to bump. You have to anchor everything just as solidly as you do on Earth.
So you both have more interesting options in terms of once you get something rotating it stays rotating readily. But you still have the issues of inertia and you have it on an unstable platform. So we have to figure out all of that vibrational damping as well as how to extrude stuff without gravity helping you.
Fraser: So then I guess fast forward us to the distant future where we are starting to become more of a space-faring race. What role do you see these 3D printers playing in our exploration of the solar system and our ability to live on other worlds?
Pamela: Well one of the great things about 3D printers is while it’s not going to be immediately easy to just go to Mars and just start mining iron ore in any useful way and finding all of the materials necessary to make the correct alloys to feed into a 3D printer, what is relatively easy is figuring out how to package the materials that goes into the 3D printer in such a way that you don’t end up with a lot of wasted space in your spacecraft. So if I want to build a whole bunch of stuff I don’t have any empty space when I lift off into space. I simply send up the stuff that I need to feed the 3D printer, whether it be a plastic or an alloy or a straight metal, and then that gets turned into a much larger, much less dense spacecraft that then goes off and explores.
Over time it’s going to reach the point where we’re able to 3D print multiple substances quite readily and so we can layer by layer build up the mirrors of our telescope, the light-shield of our telescope, all of the wiring in one long, complicated, time-consuming print job. But that’s still something that is just as time-consuming to do here on Earth and now is a whole lot easier to launch into outer space.
It’s also going to change things like instead of ordering something off of Amazon Prime you’re going to be able to be sitting on Mars ordering the plans for something and commerce will instead be based off of who’s come up with the best set of plans to build this item or that item effectively. I can imagine a day where instead of having a Google image search there’s going to be a Google sculpt search. We’re getting there we’re just getting there slowly.
Fraser: I think that’s a really interesting point that you had said, which is that the structural strength of a spacecraft needs to be able to withstand the launch of that spacecraft off of the Earth and so the G force and in many cases with some of those big spacecraft the G forces can be pretty ferocious, they can be five, seven Gs that they have to withstand. And yet, if all you needed was a spacecraft that could handle the very gentle nudges from an ion drive or the slight rotations as it’s shifting to a new position that’s a completely different engineering requirement. And so, as you said, you could build them a lot more light and they’ve never experienced Earth gravity and so they’ve never had to worry about that.
The other thing that I think is pretty interesting, and this is like literally straight from the news, is that they’re testing out a new delivery system where people are going to be able to throw these little cargo pods out of the International Space Station. These things will fly back to Earth and they’ll reenter the atmosphere and land with pinpoint accuracy to any place on Earth. And so again, you can imagine a space-based printer prints off like either if you need to get some materials from space back to Earth they could create these return vehicles, fill them with whatever stuff has been created in space, and then return them back to Earth.
And it’s entirely. Again, what more experimentation is needed? There could be things which – crystals that can be grown, various kinds of scientific experiments that can only be done in space with these kinds of new printers. It’s entirely possible that we really do need that zero gravity to make some kinds of things. So again, all super fascinating stuff.
Pamela: Back in the early days of thinking about building the International Space Station and back with the space shuttle everyone was interested in what happens with materials development in space? What happens with the creation of drugs and crystals, as you point out, where you’re in this environment where you don’t have to worry about things coming out of solution, where you don’t have to worry about defects in your crystals because they’re adhered to the wall of the solution they’re growing within? We’re now looking at a permanent orbiting humanity, at least on the International Space Station or at least until 2020 if the Russians kick us off, but with 3D printing it starts to become much more imaginable to see those materials engineers going into space and being able to get the costs low enough that commercial industries can finally strictly from the chemical engineering, materials engineering, fake jewelry engineering as we’re creating better sapphires or whatever in space.
It all comes together as a combination of the chemistry and the construction all being on one platform.
Fraser: That is awesome stuff. All right, well thanks a lot Pamela.
Pamela: It’s been my pleasure.
Fraser: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook or circle us on Google+.
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