Made In Space has built a long and respectable track record of, well, making things in space. The company was responsible for the first 3D printer ever to be launched into space, as well as the follow-up, which continues to 3D print on the International Space Station as the Additive Manufacturing Facility. Made In Space is now working on the Archinaut, a giant robotic 3D printer that will be capable of constructing objects freeform in the vacuum of outer space.
NASA’s logo, made in aluminum by Vulcan [Image: Made In Space]
Now Made In Space has won a new NASA contract to continue the development of its Vulcan hybrid manufacturing system. The system can 3D print with a wide variety of materials, including metal, unlike the 3D printers currently aboard the ISS, which can only print with polymers. The new NASA contract is a Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award; Made In Space recently completed Phase 1 of the contract, which it received last year.
“The Vulcan hybrid manufacturing system allows for flexible augmentation and creation of metallic components on demand with high precision,” said Mike Snyder, Made In Space Chief Engineer and Principal Investigator. “Vulcan is an efficient, safe capability that utilizes the minimum amount of resources during manufacturing processes.”
When Vulcan is complete, it will take its place on the International Space Station alongside the other 3D printers, where it will demonstrate its advanced capabilities.
“Vulcan can be important to logistical reduction necessary for long-term exploration,” Snyder said. “The hybrid manufacturing system is a major step forward for efficient space operations, providing the ability to build essential components and assemblies in the space environment, where flying spare parts from Earth is otherwise not viable.”
Vulcan will be able to 3D print with more than 30 materials, including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum and a wide variety of plastic composites. The hybrid machine will not only 3D print but will use subtractive techniques such as CNC to machine the 3D printed parts down to their final specifications.
It’s not all 3D printing with Made In Space: the company recently launched a machine to the ISS that creates a high-value optical fiber called ZBLAN, which is difficult to make on Earth as gravity creates tiny defects in the material. The goal of the machine is to determine whether ZBLAN can be manufactured in zero gravity and whether it would be lucrative enough to manufacture it on a large scale. If so, Made In Space plans to scale up production and bring ZBLAN back to Earth for sale in large quantities.
In other space news, many, many small CubeSat satellites have been sent into space over the past few years, and several of them have been 3D printed. NASA sent the first two CubeSats into deep space, and has received radio signals including that all is well and working so far. Mars Cube One, or MarCO, is a pair of briefcase-sized satellites that launched a few days ago along with NASA’s InSight Mars lander. InSight will probe the deep interior of Mars for the first time, and the CubeSats will follow along and test out miniature spacecraft data along the way.
An artist’s rendering of MarCO. [Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech]
Both of the CubeSats were programmed to unfold their solar panels soon after launch, and then had the opportunity to radio back and confirm that all was well.
“Both MarCO-A and B say ‘Polo!’ It’s a sign that the little sats are alive and well,” said Andy Klesh, Chief Engineer for the MarCO mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the twin spacecraft.
Over the next couple of weeks, NASA will assess how well the CubeSats are performing, and if they survive the radiation of space, they will fly over Mars during InSight’s entry, descent and landing in November. Several new experimental systems are being tested with the satellites, including their radios, folding high-gain antennas, attitude control and propulsion systems.
“We’re nervous but excited,” said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO’s project manager. “A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the trip to Mars and relay data during InSight’s landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep-space missions.”
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[Sources: Space.com, NASA]