When we consider space exploration, and even the increasingly likely possibilities of colonizing the Moon or Mars, it’s a given that the highest quality engineering will play a vital role. Everything from the clothing of astronauts to the spacecrafts themselves involves pinpoint design, advance material, and altogether ingenious construction.
For the most part, those of us without direct education in related fields can barely begin to understand all of the factors that go into modern space exploration.
One thing we can understand, however, and which is becoming increasingly interesting as we ease toward more ambitious space travel, is that some of the very same advanced manufacturing methods that are beginning to become more popular here on Earth are showing potential to assist space exploration. In particular, it’s now apparent that both CNC machining and 3D printing could play important roles in equipping astronauts for long-term exploration and/or colonization.
CNC machining, for those who may not be familiar, is a process through which an automated machine cuts and shapes material to exact specifications in order to form a product – typically more efficiently and precisely than can be done via other processes. The technology has virtually innumerable applications, but we actually read recently about NASA taking an interest. Per Daily Freeman, NASA is partnering with student engineering programs to create better storage lockers for the International Space Station, and it appears that CNC machining will be at the core of the effort. Specifically, robotics and engineering students working on the project through the NASA HUNCH program will deploy 5-axis CNC processes, which enable intricate and complex designs (whereas 3-axis machining is best for simpler designs).
The need to improve International Space Station lockers is just the sort of space exploration necessity most of us would never think of, but which has significant bearing on everyday life for astronauts. And thinking about it that way, one can’t help but wonder what else might be accomplished through CNC machining – particularly since we know that the technology is growing more versatile by the day. In a guide to CNC machining capabilities, Fictiv listed a number of the different materials that can now be used in this type of manufacturing, highlighting not just the popular plastics (known as ABS), but also aluminum, copper, steel, polycarbonates, and more. The same guide also suggests that modern CNC machining can produce parts with tolerance as low as 0.0003 in., which is another way of saying designs have pinpoint accuracy. Given all of these capabilities, it’s easy to imagine that improved lockers for the ISS are only scratching the surface of what this technology may soon be doing for space travel.
Where 3D printing is concerned, we may see even more applications, though many of them may also still seem somewhat more futuristic at the moment. If you haven’t read up on 3D printing, it’s actually more or less just what it sounds like: technology that creates physical designs out of raw material, and does so exactly according to preset designs. Also referred to as “additive manufacturing,” it’s valued for its ability to generate materials efficiently and with minimal waste (“adding” only the material needed, whereas ordinary construction typically “subtracts” the required material from a larger whole).
3D printing also has limitless potential, and particularly given that we’re already seeing it used to create parts for functioning automobiles, it’s conceivable that in the near future we’ll even be 3D printing spacecrafts, or the parts that comprise them. We covered the future of the auto industry as relates to self-driving cars in 2019, and part of that future might indeed involve the use of 3D printing to minimize waste and make the vehicles all the more environmentally responsible. Something similar could certainly occur relating to space travel – but for now, the most exciting potential use for 3D printing in space exploration might just be a concept design for housing on Mars.
A piece at Dual Dove examined a design by AI SpaceFactory for sustainable housing on Mars, which was generated in conditions meant to vaguely imitate those that will exist on Mars. Limited time, robotic construction, and material similar to what we might simply find on Mars (or the Moon) were all factored in, and the result was a hive-like structure that could in theory provide shelter on another planet – built through 3D printing technology.
Considering all of the above, you can begin to see the full potential of these advanced manufacturing technologies specifically for space exploration and habitation. And really, these examples showcasing small product designs and concepts only tell part of the story. We should also consider that 3D printers and CNC machinery housed on spacecrafts could also enable far more innovation and construction for those in the midst of long-term missions as well.
If, in another 50 years or so, we have successfully colonized the Moon and Mars, these technologies will undoubtedly have played a significant role in helping us do so.