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NASA and the Future of Printable Electronics

Posted In Technology devices - By Techtiplib on Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 With No Comments »

For as long as it has been in existence, NASA has stood at the forefront of technological advances. They are, after all, the folks who brought us Tang and freeze dried foods.

The same is true today. While the rest of the United States is just beginning to become familiar with the concept of 3D printing technology, NASA has already begun exploring ways to put it to use in the space program.

How Does It Work?

More correctly known as additive technology, 3D printing is a process by which very thin layers of a chosen material are laid in succession based on a virtual blueprint that has been loaded into the printer’s hard drive.

The material the item is being built from may be a liquid like Canon ink, powder or any other material that can be produced in very thin sheets. The computer takes many successive cross sections of the blueprint and lays down the proper materials in the proper placement based on these cross sections. The end result is a three dimensional, accurately constructed and fully functional item.

The possibilities created by this technology are truly endless, limited only by our imagination and the presence of raw materials. 

NASA Gets Onboard

NASA embraced 3D printing technology as the agency quickly recognized the advantages of having anything you need manufactured on site. Every NASA installation has additive manufacturing abilities and plans are already underway to send the technology to space.

It is in space that the people at NASA hope to be able to make the most use of 3D printing. Having this technology at the space station means that the astronauts and scientists could manufacture whatever they needed as soon as it was needed. They would no longer have to wait for supplies arriving on the next mission to perform repairs or upgrades.

Trial Run

Before NASA puts this technology in space, they are putting it through its paces here on Earth.

In California, at the Ames Research Center, they are testing the possibility that additive manufacturing can be used to effectively create small satellites, complete with all of the detailed electronics and hardware. At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, they are working on the printing of propulsion technology.

Creating propulsion systems powerful enough to move items into space while still being safe to operate is one of the larger challenges for NASA scientists and engineers. It is hoped that this new technology can not only make the manufacture of these parts faster and less expensive but also that the parts themselves will be stronger and therefore safer than those made in the conventional ways.

Florida Research

Perhaps the most interesting of the NASA research is being done at the Kennedy Space Station in Florida. This research revolves around figuring out what, if any, of the materials found on the moon, Mars or asteroids could be used to manufacture the items needed by people in space. Perfecting this would not only enable travel to more distant planets but also open the door for the possibility of people actually living either in space, on the moon or any of the other planets.

A Reachable Goal

Of course, all of those possibilities are quite far off. The technology involved in printing usable and reliable electronics is really in its infancy.

However, the creation of plastic items using additive manufacturing technology is quite reliable. In October of 2014, NASA plans to send a 3D printer capable of creating items made of plastic to the space station. It is believed that having this technology there will allow the astronauts to come closer to self sufficiency by giving them the ability to create many of the items they need to conduct their studies and keep the space station safe and functional.

Case in Point

NASA Chief John Bolden is incredibly excited about the possibilities that additive manufacturing technology could bring to the space program. He is a veteran of four space shuttle missions and recounted to Popular Mechanics one incident on a flight where the technology to create plastic items aboard the shuttle would have been very advantageous.

In 1994 he was aboard the space shuttle Discovery when one of the ducts that carried vital oxygen was crushed. Although it was still airtight, the astronauts and ground crew were concerned that it might close off completely and block the life giving oxygen from getting through. This scenario was nearly impossible to foresee and no equipment was on board the shuttle to repair the damage.

Luckily, some out-of-the-box thinking saved the day when a crew member thought to take a plastic book cover and roll it up to provide support to the damaged duct. However, if 3D printing technology had been aboard the shuttle it would have been a simple thing to feed the information into the printer and create a new piece of duct work.

It is exactly these types of close calls where additive manufacturing technology could save the day. It is simply not possible to predict every possible scenario, and even if it was, it would be impossible to carry everything needed on space flights.

A great deal of research and development still needs to be done before all the possibilities this technology presents to NASA can be realized.

That being said, the folks at NASA are convinced that printable electronics will make manned flights to Mars and beyond a real possibility.

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