Space manufacturer Redwire will send new hardware to the International Space Station (ISS) to demonstrate 3D printing with lunar regolith simulant in microgravity. This milestone could be a major leap in the race to 3D printing off-Earth with in-situ resources, especially as upcoming generations of space explorers will require advanced technologies to survive on other planets.
On August 10, 2021, the company’s latest project called the Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) study will travel to the ISS aboard Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket for the 16th commercial resupply services mission. Once it reaches orbit, astronauts will fit the RRP hardware on Redwire’s Manufacturing Device (ManD), developed by its subsidiary business Made In Space. The additive manufacturing platform will 3D print the first samples in microgravity made from a material simulating the layers of loose rock and soil found on the surface of the Moon and other planets.
Unlocking the full potential of 3D printing technologies for in-space manufacturing has been described by many experts as one of the keys to human survival off-Earth. For upcoming long-duration, deep space missions, astronauts will need to make spare parts, tools, materials, and habitats, reducing existing logistics requirements and payload costs, as well as launch-related stresses, like vibration forces, which can sometimes damage equipment and parts sent to orbit.
For almost a decade, NASA and its commercial partners have used the space station to test various technologies to provide in-situ 3D printing capabilities unconstrained by gravity. Even more so, Redwire is set to become a long-term partner in this journey, thanks to many of the 3D printers manufactured by Made In Space since 2014, which are all currently operational in orbit and used commercially.
One of the first to go up was the Additive Manufacturing Facility (now referred to as ManD after being reinstalled in 2020), followed by the Fiber Optics (MIS Fiber) miniature fiber-pulling machine, the Plastic Recycler to process waste plastic into feedstock filaments for the AM system, and finally the Ceramic Manufacturing Module (CMM) in September 2020. The ManD enables the production of components for both NASA and commercial objectives. This microgravity printer can create parts, entire experiments, and tools on-demand out of a wide variety of thermopolymers, including engineered plastics.
This time around, Redwire’s RRP will demonstrate 3D printing with regolith feedstock material in a continuous microgravity environment using the ManD. RRP consists of extruders and print beds that integrate with the ManD printer, designed specifically to use regolith-based materials. The focus will be to demonstrate the manufacturing process capability in microgravity and to print material samples that will be returned to Earth for scientific analysis and comparison with test specimens produced on the ground with the Manufacturing Device ground unit prior to launch.
Led by principal investigator and Redwire’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Michael Snyder, the RRP collaborative effort with NASA will attempt to ensure that 3D printing with regolith allows on-demand construction of strong, durable structures. Furthermore, by operating both on the ground and in microgravity, the team will be confident that the process will be useful on planetary bodies with a gravity weaker than 1G.
If successful, the investigation will help determine the feasibility of using interplanetary resources as the raw materials for on-demand construction of housing, landing pads, and other structures for future exploration missions. In addition, the ability to manufacture durable structures on-demand using materials gathered at the construction site has potential applications on Earth as well. The team referred to a few examples, including the development of infrastructure to improve quality of life in remote and undeveloped areas and on-site emergency construction during natural disaster response.
Northrop Grumman will be targeting liftoff for the next Antares rocket in August from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Wallops Island, Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft aboard Antares will also deliver other scientific investigations, crew supplies, and spare equipment to the space station. The RRP will travel with Blob, an investigation by the European Space Agency to allow students to see how slime molds’ behavior is affected by microgravity, a new spacecraft carbon dioxide removal technology that could help future explorers on the Moon and Mars breathe more easily, and much more.
Space station research and technology never stops. In fact, astronauts aboard the ISS stay super busy operating many science experiments onboard and making observations. As space technology continues to expand, their work will become even more important in light of the upcoming future missions for space explorers set to take place in the next 20 years.
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