The addition of manufacturing capabilities in space could make the future of space exploration a cheaper and more efficient one. Picture a space station creating the parts of a space craft needed for a reconnaissance mission, eliminating the need to launch another vehicle from Earth - saving millions of dollars and valuable time. This is the tremendous advantage that 3D printers can lend to space exploration.
Manufacturing in space is still extremely nascent but has begun with the successful usage of a NASA - backed 3D printer built specifically for this purpose. Not only can the 3D printer work in zero gravity, but it can print its own parts as well. Astronauts recently used the printer to print its own face plate and used the design for a ratchet wrench, sent electronically by NASA, to print that as well. With the successful production of both, it seems like 3D printing may have enormous potential for the aerospace industry.
For instance, space stations or crafts needing extra or replacements for damaged parts will no longer need to wait for another vehicle to be launched from Earth. Repair parts can be printed in real time from designs sent electronically and the work that needs to be done can be completed in speed. This could possibly lower the cost of manufacturing and launching space crafts for space missions drastically. It could even help astronauts in a space craft that needs repairs to head back safely, to take the matter into their own hands and make the necessary repairs.
However, a 3D printing service in space does not only mean being able to produce spare parts when necessary. A large portion of the payload, which contributes directly to the increasing cost in launching a space craft, can be significantly lowered. Some of the scientific equipment can be printed in space, leading to a lower cost in aerospace production. And it isn’t only bulky scientific equipment that benefits from such an arrangement. Delicate equipment can’t be sent to space as the extreme conditions encountered while leaving the Earth’s atmosphere obliterate the equipment and render it useless. Now these parts can be printed in space itself, leading to possibilities of plenty more scientific research that can be undertaken.
With these advances and more in the pipeline, the day is not far when 3D printers in space can manufacture other products, becoming completely independent of earth-based home stations. A lot of the aerospace equipment back on Earth takes time and research to be constructed for a safe launch out of the atmosphere. Printing in space avoids a lot of the dangers and complications associated with manufacturing such equipment on land, and opens up manufacturing possibilities for the future - ushering in faster, newer, cheaper and more efficient space exploration programs.
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