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Elena Malykhina
Elena Malykhina
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NASA Explores 3D Printing: 5 Cool Projects

What can NASA do with 3D printing? Take a look at these pioneering ideas for current and future missions.
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(Image: Made in Space)
(Image: Made in Space)

What if there were a more efficient -- and less expensive -- way to develop tools and science instruments for space missions? NASA may have found the answer with 3D printing. The agency has introduced a number of programs focused on prototyping tools using this manufacturing technique.

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, offers NASA an alternative to traditional manufacturing approaches, given the agency's requirements for highly customized spacecraft and instrument components. The process involves computer-aided device (CAD) models and sophisticated printers that lay down successive layers of material in different shapes.

"We're not driving the additive manufacturing train; industry is. But NASA has the ability to get on board to leverage it for our unique needs," Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a written statement. Swanson is the center's point of contact for 3D printing.

[See how NASA research can turn into tools for industry. Read NASA Launches Online Tech Licensing Tool.]

Goddard's Internal Research and Development (IRAD) has been evaluating the usefulness of 3D printing for the past two years. One area of interest is electronics -- or more specifically, the techniques for removing heat from heat-sensitive computer chips. Goddard, for example, used additive manufacturing to develop a system-on-a-chip for monitoring everything from voltages and currents to temperature levels.

Nearly all NASA centers have started using additive manufacturing for various applications, according to the agency.

The Langley Research Center in Virginia has come up with a "green" manufacturing process called the electron beam freeform (EBF3), which uses an electron-beam gun, a dual-wire feed, and computer controls to remotely manufacture metallic structures for building parts and tools. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is researching the use of soil on extraterrestrial bodies as feedstock for building 3D habitats as well as other structures. And the Ames Research Center in California is exploring the possibility of using synthetic biology to manufacture biological materials.

In addition to different programs running at its centers, NASA has been working with Made in Space to launch equipment that will be used aboard the International Space Station, as shown in the picture above. In the near future, the agency sees astronauts using 3D printing in space to create parts and tools they need.

NASA is also taking part in a public-private partnership called America Makes, formerly known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). NASA, along with four other government agencies -- the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, and the National Science Foundation -- have jointly invested in a pilot institute created to transition 3D printing into mainstream US manufacturing.

Check out our slideshow to see more of NASA's achievements in 3D printing.

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2014 | 2:15:28 PM
Re: materials ?!
ACTUALLY... as 3D printers that are able to get more and more precise are becoming more and more mainstream, that's not entirely unreasonable. Currently the technology isn't readily available to be able to print on a molecular level consistently, but as the technology is refined and becomes more available for studies of new ways to adapt it and make it more exact, it's entirely possible to be able to create designer medications. Imagine medication that was based on your specific DNA and physiology - side effects would be a thing of the past because each formula would be tailored to you specifically, and would be able to account for your unique body chemistry. If you could create a formula molecule by molecule, why couldn't you take 2 molecules of hydrogen and 1 molecule of oxygen and bond them to create water? We've been 3D mapping chemicals for years now. At this point, it's just a matter of being able to build on that small of a scale.
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 2:11:06 PM
3D food
NASA is also working with Texas-based company Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to explore the possibility of using a 3D printer for making food in space. Naturally, the big concerns with that are safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional value.
User Rank: Moderator
2/11/2014 | 11:59:59 AM
materials ?!
One of the most important part of any tool/spare part is its material. Parts are tested to work with other parts when manutectured out of specified material. Those specifications are vital for everything to be working as designed.

So how come everyone here pretends that materials are irrelevant?

It seems that the next logical step would be to print pills - as long as the tablets come in the right shape and color we'd be ok, right?
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 10:32:35 AM
Re: DIY space probe
On a similar note, what happen when there's an equipment malfunction or something vital breaks in space? You print a replacement part.
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 10:31:12 AM
Whole new world
Make your own tools on the spot. What would the Apollo astronauts make of 3D printing in space?
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 10:22:46 AM
DIY space probe
Maybe someday they'll include a 3D Printer on a Mars (or Titan or Io) rover, so it can manufacture its own tools as needed during exploration.

How else could this fit in?
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