Let’s talk about how we build things in space. If we are going to become a truly space-faring civilization and a multi-planetary species, then we need to expand our manufacturing infrastructure beyond the surface of the Earth.
Take Mars; For example, if we’re going to build a Mars colony or eventually something on the scale of Elon Musk’s Mars city, we can’t just ship that all over from the Earth.
We’ve got to build it on Mars. And traditional manufacturing doesn’t translate so well to an autonomous habitat factory millions of miles away on an alien planet. It also doesn’t work very well for manufacturing on the moon or trying to build in Earth orbit.
Table of contents
- Is 3D printing in space possible?
- Does Amazon make 3D printers?
- What company is 3D printing Rockets?
- So how does this apply to our original point about building a Mars colony?
- Giant soup pots
- Our second big advantage with 3d printing comes back to the word iteration
- How 3D printing helps space exploration?
- What will feature additive manufacturing in space?
- Imagine a 3d printing machine in orbit around the Earth
Is 3D printing in space possible?
3d printing is the way to build things in the space age. No other process is more adaptable to new and unpredictable situations than 3d printing or additive manufacturing. And today, we’re getting into why that is and what we will use this technology to build as we expand humanity into outer space. This is the Space Race.
The most compelling reason 3D printing is so important for the space age is that it allows you to quickly and rapidly modify a design on the fly. What we mean by that is that you can change the design of your 3d printed objects as many times as you want, as often as you want, without having to physically change your printing machine.
This is not the case with traditional manufacturing. For example, you’ve probably heard the term retooling, and it refers to every time a company changes the design of their product, the machines in the factory have to be retooled; which means the tools have to be physically changed to accommodate the new product change.
But in the world of 3D printing, if you want to change your design, you simply change the program code that controls the printer.
Does Amazon make 3D printers?
While the printer itself doesn’t need to be modified at all, you’re probably familiar with the standard consumer-grade 3d printers that you can get on Amazon for a few hundred bucks.
Even the most basic machines can create a plastic model of a ninja turtle or a baby Yoda or whatever the kids are into right now.
I don’t know, but you can also get the same cheap plastic toy at a dollar store, which will come from a factory where they use injection molding.
This allows them to rapidly mass produce a giant quantity of a particular product very quickly, but every time the trend changes, they want to make a new kind of toy.
They need to make a new mold while back at home. You can make a new style of toy every time you print, and all that needs to change in between is the software code that controls the 3d printer.
What company is 3D printing Rockets?
People might not realize that this same technology can be scaled up to the degree where we are literally 3d printing spaceships. This idea is being pioneered right now by a company called Relativity Space, who have a fully 3d printed rocket called the Terran One.
Relativity Space aims to bring Silicon Valley innovation to the slow-moving dinosaur that is the aerospace industry by 3d printing their rockets.
Relativity claims that they use 100 times fewer individual parts than a traditional rocket while achieving ten times faster production speed, and that’s great.
But their primary advantage with this process is really the flexibility that comes from having no fixed tooling, a simplified supply chain, and the ability to optimize their product through compounding iteration.
And what we mean by iteration is that every time they build something, they can check for defects and test it for function, and then make adjustments to their code based on those findings and try again, and then they compound those improvements.
So every time they build and test, and iterate, the product gets better and closer to perfection.
Relativity use a process of sensor and analytics driven machine learning during the manufacturing process, so the machine can actually identify defects in the product as it is being produced and instantly compensate in real time.
To accomplish this, Relativity uses a machine that they call the Stargate.
It is the world’s largest metal 3d printer using a custom designed aluminum alloy to form the body of the rocket and even the rocket engines as well. Time Magazine named the Stargate one of the best inventions of 2021.
Thanks to Relativity’s use of autonomous robotics and artificial intelligence, the Taran 1 rocket will be launched for the first time this summer. So, we’ll have to wait and see how well this works in the real world, but this is more about the basics and what they mean for the future of space manufacturing, and everything seems pretty stable.
So how does this apply to our original point about building a Mars colony?
There are going to be two major advantages. One is in the shipping or transport of material from Earth to Mars. We have constraints on the weight and volume of stuff that we can fit into a rocket, even a gigantic rocket like the Spacex Starship.
And we want to make the absolute most that we can out of every trip because we’re talking about a six to eight month long journey just to arrive. and even if the starship is able to make it back to Earth at some point, we won’t be seeing it again for at least a couple of years. So let’s say we want to ship pre-fabricated habitation modules to Mars.
Something like what Matt Damon was living in that’s going to be a big hollow object and maybe it partially collapses for transport or something. However, there are still going to be empty voids, and anyone who ships things for a living would tell you that the last thing you want to do is ship air.
Giant soup pots
That’s your product. Like big Italian grandma soup pots. You put one pot in a box and you ship those boxes out to customers. How many of those can you fit into a delivery truck? Not very many are you getting the most out of that truck’s capability for transporting mass?
Not at all. But what If you were to be selling cast iron pants? They’re significantly more dense, take up less volume, and you can fit significantly more pans into the same truck. You’d probably hit the truck’s weight limit before filling it to the brim with cast iron. Same deal with a rocket ship.
Suppose we ship one giant 3d printing machine along with the tightly wound spools of printing material. In that case, we are maximizing density and using the full lift capability of your super heavy rocket. Then by using the same space occupied by one prefabricated habitation module, maybe we can send the raw materials to build three or four.
Our second big advantage with 3d printing comes back to the word iteration
Let’s say we design and build what we think is the perfect Mars habitation module. Then, we ship it to Mars, unload, set it up, and it doesn’t work the way we thought it would.
Just for an example, let’s say that we go to pressurize the habitat and it just explodes.
For whatever reason, I don’t know why, but boom, It exploded. Now What? Well, we’d have to try again here on Earth, build another one with a new iteration, and then ship that to Mars and hope that it doesn’t also explode.
But if we’re using advanced ai driven machine learning 3d printing processes like the Stargate and Relativity Space, then we can just analyze what went wrong, pivot on the fly, and instantly try again.
How 3D printing helps space exploration?
And we don’t even necessarily need to 3d print a Mars colony or a moon base using metal like they do with the rocket. Instead, we could probably use a lighter weight plastic material, or there are even ideas to use regolith as a printable building material.
So the surface layer of dust and rock on the moon and Mars is called regolith. We know what regolith on the moon is composed of from sample return missions, and we have a pretty good idea what makes up the surface of Mars.
We will know for sure in a few years when the first samples being collected right now are returned to the Earth. Still, we’re pretty sure that we can actually transform the dust and rock on Mars into a kind of pliable concrete by combining it with a biopolymer.
This could come from a plant-based plastic that could be grown and produced on Mars, Or there has even been some talk of using human bodily fluids and urine to create the necessary product, which sounds wacky.
Again, I don’t know. But, again, this is what the very smart people are saying that we need a biological additive to make the concrete material harden, so we’ve just got to trust them on that one.
What will feature additive manufacturing in space?
Anyway, the point being that with this additive manufacturing technology established on a place like Mars or the Moon, we don’t have all of the answers. So on day one, we get the luxury of being able to iterate through trial and error in the real world situation. And obviously, we don’t want to be making errors while there are human beings up there.
So we get the added bonus of an automated process we don’t need to retool, we just push a new software update to the machine and this is also simplified that just a few automated robots that we deploy to Mars maybe a handful of those Teslabot Androids that Elon Musk is working on.
We can build and test and establish an entire colony before any long-term human residents of Mars begin to arrive.
And simplifying the manufacturing process like this opens up so many opportunities for what we can deploy in space.
Imagine a 3d printing machine in orbit around the Earth
All of the things that we could build up there without having to worry about gravity or being limited by what we can fit inside a rocket’s cargo fairing.
You probably know about the James Webb Space Telescope and how it had to be folded up so tightly to fit inside the rocket, and then how it had to unfold itself out again in deep space.
We probably can’t 3d print a giant telescope like that, but we definitely can print much less complex, but equally gigantic or even more gigantic things in space.
For instance, a space station that’s just constantly printing new modules and components and expanding and iterating and improving.
Or 3d printing an entire interstellar spaceship that could set off from orbit on its way to the far reaches of Jupiter or Saturn.
The possibilities here are basically endless, and that’s what makes this one of the most fun technologies to think about. So let us know what you can dream up to 3d print in outer space: A ship, a colony, an orbital station.