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3D printing in space could even produce new rocket engines

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Space travelers in the near future could produce a wide variety of items on 3D printers, from replacement parts to entire new engines to replace broken rockets.

The National Research Council (NRC) released a report exploring the possible uses for 3D printers, or additive manufacturing, during future space missions. The council noted that although potential benefits from using 3D printers in space appear possible, today's technology prevents the devices from having a major impact in the short term.

Some of the challenges to manufacturing in space mentioned in the report include microgravity, the vacuum of space and rapidly changing temperatures. Each of these factors, alone or in conjunction, can wreak havoc with current 3D printers.

An astronaut or autonomous robonaut will need to also need to watch over the machines, adding cost to the process, and removing a worker from other projects.

Human space missions could make use of 3D printing to create just what they need, when they need it. This could save weight (and cost) over bringing backups of everything.

"The benefits of in-space additive manufacturing for robotic spacecraft are far less clear, although this rapidly advancing technology can also potentially enable space-based construction of large structures and, perhaps someday, substantially in the future, entire spacecraft," the Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing and others wrote in the report announcing the study.

Additive manufacturing in space will, in the coming decades, need to be conducted in orbiting outposts independent of the International Space Station. The study looked forward to the years and decades after the retirement of the ISS, and how that could affect the technology.

The aerospace industry is known for producing unique, complex systems in extremely limited quantities. Those requirements are ideal for 3D printers, and manufacturers are making widespread use of the devices. However, these machines are mostly ground-based so far. Some challenges for space-based manufacturing include a cost comparison between launching ready-made goods, or the materials to print them. Also, goods manufactured in space cannot be tested in facilities on the ground.

The report was funded by NASA and the Air Force. Recommendations include facilitating communications both inside and outside the agency. The agency should then work to create a plan to modernize technology for additive manufacturing. A series of experiments should be planned, the report stated, testing new 3D printing technologies aboard the International Space Station. Hiring of additional people skilled in additive manufacturing was also recommended.

NASA has already conducted its own studies of how 3D printers operate in space, and even investigated printing food for astronauts.

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