NASA breakthrough improves 3D printing in space

NASA's new technique allows 3D printers to create one object composed of multiple types of materials.

The X37 within the belly of the Space Shuttle

The X37 within the belly of the Space Shuttle

One of the limitations of 3D printing has been its inability to use different types of materials while printing one product. This has been an obstacle for 3D printing in space travel, which sometimes requires parts composed of several different materials.

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), alongside others from Caltech and Penn State University, recently put a new solution for this problem into practice, thus bringing 3D printing closer to space travel, one of the industries that stand to benefit the most from it.

The process allows a 3D printer to switch between different types of alloys, which could differ in density or melting temperature, while building one part. The project was inspired by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, the team behind the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, which sought a better method for utilizing parts made of different materials.

Similar processes have been developed in research and development projects. However, JPL mechanical engineer John Paul Borgonia said in a press release that this was the first time it's been put to use to build a real-life part - the mirror mount shown below.

Without this process, which NASA says could have implications for the manufacturing industry as a whole, astronauts would need to print each different material separately and weld them together into one whole part. For space travel, this makes for a safer and more efficient process for building new parts when the old ones need to be replaced.

From NASA's press release: "Say you want a metal object where you would like the ends to have different properties. One side could have a high melting temperature and the other a low density, or one side could be magnetic and the other not. Of course, you could separately make both halves of the object from their respective metals and then weld them together. But the weld itself may be brittle, so that your new object might fall apart under stress. That’s not a good idea if you are constructing an interplanetary spacecraft, for example, which cannot be fixed once it is deployed."

Say you want a metal object where you would like the ends to have different properties. One side could have a high melting temperature and the other a low density, or one side could be magnetic and the other not. Of course, you could separately make both halves of the object from their respective metals and then weld them together. But the weld itself may be brittle, so that your new object mightfall apart under stress. That's not a good idea if you are constructing an interplanetary spacecraft, for example, which cannot be fixed once it is deployed.

The breakthrough is just the latest in NASA's extensive work with 3D printing, which enables astronauts to create resources on demand rather than store large amounts upon departure. This includes spare parts and tools, inexpensive satellites, and food.

Read more: Adobe puts even more emphasis on 3D printing

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