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3D printing plastic in space — the latest from Made in Space

In our recent blog post on the development of additive manufacturing for space exploration, we touched on Made in Space’s announcement of a new technology that would allow for 3D printing plastic in space. While the International Space Station has already been making use of an onboard SLS printer, this new approach will actually allow astronauts to print parts in the vacuum of space. This will provide an extra level of flexibility when it comes to conducting repairs on the exterior of the space station. This was something existing technologies were unable to accommodate, as the plastic materials utilised were not suitable for use in a vacuum.

Made in Space have recently announced further developments in the form of the Archinaut technology. This technology combines their space-worthy 3D printing plastic materials — referred as ULTEM — with a system of robot arms that allows sophisticated structures to be crafted in space. Made in Space recently conducted a live demonstration of this technology at NASA Ames Research Center’s Engineering Evaluation Laboratory, where a printed part was created in a thermal vacuum chamber that accurately simulated the conditions encountered in space.

The potential applications for this technology are huge, as it could be used for crafting everything from satellites and telescopes to simple tools, all without the design constraints that come with creating parts on Earth. This will reduce the need to ship parts and materials up to the International Space Station. Further down the line, as the range of materials becomes increasingly sophisticated, the technology could even be used to print habitations in space. Indeed, we understand that Made in Space are already developing a metal additive manufacturing counterpart to their 3D printing plastic technology.

While we expect there to be a learning curve involved in this technology, as engineers develop a new set of design tools, this will allow space exploration technology to be fully optimised for its environment, without needing to factor in the launch process. This new approach to manufacturing could easily have a positive effect on other industries, as new applications reveal themselves. In fact, Made in Space are already looking into new solutions for the industrial and defence sectors back on Earth.

We will continue to follow this technology’s evolution with great interest.