Entries in space (25)
by General Fabb
According to a report in New Scientist, NASA is funding research that could lead to 3D printed food technology. Texas-based Anjan Contractor of Systems and Materials Research Corporation obtained funding from NASA's Small Business Innovation Research Program to develop a "fully functional" 3D food printer.
The goal of this program is to creat te a way to produce nutritious food, while storing the ingredients compactly, during a lengthy Mars mission. We suspect another major benefit sought is to introduce variety and change into food preparations. If you're stuck in a tiny spacecraft for over a year, you'd like some variety, too.
The food printer will store food material in powder form, adding liquid during printing to enable extrusion. Apparently they've already printed "noodles, turkey loaf, basil paste, bread and cake".
While the shapes the food can be printed into will vary considerably, we hope the taste will be equally varied.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
No, we're not referring to the identically-named giftshop at Kennedy Space Centre where you can buy all the freeze-dried ice cream you'd care to eat; we are instead referring to NASA's Advanced Digital Materials and Manufacturing for Space initiative at their Ames Research Center. It's basically a FabLab for NASA makers.
The SpaceShop includes all the typical makerspace gear: laser cutters, woodworking, metalwork equipment - but it also includes 3D printers.
In a video by CNET's Sumi Das, we can catch a glimpse of the new workshop, including one of the 3D printers, which appears to be a 3D Systems Cube. Although not shown, we strongly suspect NASA has larger 3D printing gear in addition to the small Cube.
Why is NASA setting up a Fablab? From their objective:
Apply these FabLab-based advanced manufacturing technologies to some of our specific ARC technology and product interests, including small spacecraft structures and components, biological technologies and in particular synthetic biology, small science instruments and spaceflight hardware and components, and in-situ repurposing of space products and materials.
They're trying to "take the best lessons of the maker community" into NASA. Hopefully access to this rapid prototyping capability will enable the scientists and engineers at NASA to develop even more amazing spacecraft.
A new proposal for 3D printing lunar habitats has been unveiled by Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Dr. Ondrej Doule of the International Space University, and this one looks like it just might work.
Previous proposals involved shipping 3D supplies from Mother Earth, but that obviously requires more energy and expense. The SinterHab proposal uses freely available sunlight to produce electricity that then is converted into microwaves that melt lunar soil.
Lunar soil is rich in nano-sized iron particles, which melt at high temperatures and form the soil into a durable ceramic-like substance. Once you can do that, it's only a matter of designing combinations of structural elements and assembling them into a functioning habitat - which the "space architects" have already done.
Their concept is rigid sintered structures enclosing "deployable membranes" that hold in air and moisture. The rigid structure not only holds the membrane, but also provides protection against micrometeorites and solar or cosmic radiation.
The process of building is accomplished by a "Sinterator", which appears to be a mobile robot equipped with microwave apparatus.
Will this become a reality? Maybe not, but perhaps some variation of this proposal will once we return the moon in coming years.
A post on Mashable describes the goings-on at NASA where they're deeply investigating the possibility of using 3D printing technology on future space missions.
As we've said before, 3D printing in space could be massively beneficial, as you'd need only bring the printer and some print media with you into space, where you'd simply make any object required.
However, there are significant challenges, not the least of which is safety. But they're working on it.
Recently they've been investigating the use of 3D printing for building components for the new Space Launch System, or SLS. The idea is straightforward: 3D printed parts can be much lighter than conventionally manufactured component because the additive process permits production of more efficient geometric shapes. They're using metal 3D printing technology from Concept Laser to produce engine parts.
If you think this is science fiction, think again. With the announcement of Planetary Resources' plans for harvesting asteroids, there will be quite a few 3D printers in space.
A science-fictiony proposal in Wired suggests future astro-colonists could feast on dishes prepared by 3D food printers.
The concept seems like a good one; current astronauts are subjected to freeze-dried packets of former food, brought back from the dead by injection of lubricating water. While astros put on a brave face when describing their food, one can only imagine how terrible it must be, particularly for long-duration expeditions.
Can we solve this with 3D printing? We're skeptical. Currently food printers are only experiments and speculation. Most experiments involve only a single print material, erm, foodstuff. While 3D printed food items may be technically edible, they tend to lack the attractiveness of properly prepared food: Consider the questionably delicious 20mm deep fried turkey cube image above, an early food printing experiment. Perhaps more culinary experts should assist the engineers working on food printing?
A useful space 3D food printer (did we just say that?) would have to be capable of printing in multiple foodstuffs, offer a variety of cooking options, be entirely food safe and operate in a weightless environment without creating spaceship hazards such as grease fires, etc.
That's a very tall order for anyone working on the topic. And we're unaware of anyone doing so.
Even if a "space 3D food printer" were developed, there's a major problem: print time. As Fabbaloo readers know, 3D printing just isn't very fast and those waiting in line for their dish to be printed will not be happy. It's more than likely astronauts will starve.
Yay food packets!
You might not realize it, but there are actually two companies pursuing asteroid mining today. One is Planetary Resources, backed by notables such as James Cameron, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and more. The other company is Deep Space Industries.
And they're making a space-based 3D printer.
Their purpose is to seek out asteroids containing suitable quantities of metals and water. They wish to convert these raw materials into usable space products on site and thus save on the massive cost of shipping heavy metal parts into deep space.
They'll accomplish this with the "MicroGravity Foundry", pictured above. The first version, the MGF-3, is a rack mounted affair, but the successor, the MGF-4, is designed to build and assemble very large structures such as solar power arrays and communications antennae. They say:
Deep Space is building a team with the skills to turn raw asteroids into valuable products. We'll serve in-space markets first, where fuel and materials shipped up from Earth are exceedingly costly. The MicroGravity Foundry will be able to transform asteroid ore into complex metal parts with a simple 3D printing process. Deep Space will be the Maker of things that are needed to open the frontier of space, using processes and machines that start small and be scaled as large as our plans take us.
We're really in the 21st century, aren't we?
Researchers from several US institutions including NASA recently published a paper describing their experiment in "Lunar 3D Printing". No, they weren't actually ON the Moon. Instead they produced synthetic lunar soil (called "Regolith" by scientists) and attempted to use it as material in a 3D printing process.
The process used was "LENS", or Laser Engineering Net Shaping, a technology from Optomec that we wrote about last year. A very high-power laser fuses metal powder at the instant its deposited on a surface.
The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate the feasibility of directly using lunar soil to build structures and components, with the obvious benefit of avoiding the costly shipment of heavy metal feedstock from Planet Earth.
In this video, Dr. Amit Bandyopadhyay enthusiastically explains how it works.
Did the experiment work? According to the paper's findings:
A combination of laser parameters resulting in a 2.12 J/mm2 laser energy appeared to be ideal for generating a melt pool necessary for lunar regolith powder deposition without excessive liquid pool spreading and cracking of solidified parts. The results show that LENS™ based laser processing transformed crystalline regolith into nanocrystalline and/or amorphous regolith structures as a result of complete melting followed by resolidification. Laser processing also resulted in marginal changes in the composition of the regolith.
We suspect that means it worked.
Now, we need only deliver an Optomec LENS-750 to the Moon and we're all set.
We're not sure what to make of this. Evidently Aleph Objects, Inc., the producers of the LulzBot personal 3D printer have announced their sponsorship of the Mars One initiative.
Ok, wait. What's Mars One? It's a Dutch-based project with the intention of sending a human expedition to the Planet Mars in 2023. No, really. You can read about them here.
At the "Silver Sponsorship" level, they join "Byte Internet" (a Dutch web hosting company) as the only major visible sponsors of Mars One.
In theory this relationship has a kind of logic to it. Mars explorers would likely require a 3D printer of some type to produce arbitrary objects (spare parts, most likely) while on the Red Planet.
On the other hand, Hm.