3-D Printing… In SPACE!

Fact: it’s only a matter of time before we’re all living on Mars. NASA and other space agencies around the world have been cooking up plans to reach the Red Planet for years, and a good deal of the technology needed for an exploratory mission is already ready already. New rocket boosters and spacecraft engines are being tested, and there are astronauts training for the year-plus trek through the vastness of space as we speak.

There is one obstacle that’s proving difficult to overcome—launching stuff into space is difficult and expensive. A manned trip to Mars is going to require a lot of stuff. It’s already been established that the first group of space travelers to reach the planet are most likely never going to return to Earth, and Amazon Prime doesn’t deliver to Mars, so the explorers will have to bring everything they need with them when they go.

A Washington-based company called Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (or TUI) may have solved this challenge, at least partially.

“What’s the Status of the Positrusion Recycler, Scotty?”

3-D printed Star Trek figurine.

3-D printed Star Trek figurine.

While it certainly sounds like something that could be found on the starship Enterprise, TUI’s positrusion recycler is, in fact, specially engineered for use on the International Space Station. The device can be used to recycle plastic waste and repurpose it via 3-D printing. According to the Tethers Unlimited team, the postitrusion recycler is as easy to use as a microwave, but since we’re talking about a group of folks with smarts enough to build an outer space plastic recycling device, they may have slightly unrealistic views on ease of use.

The company is working to develop commercial versions of the device, but after a demonstration last year, NASA was sufficiently impressed with the positrusion recycler to award TUI a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to continue working on the spacebound version. The latest and greatest version, dubbed the Refabricator by Tethers Unlimited, will undergo extensive testing in low- to zero-gravity aboard ISS, and will hopefully be fully ready for use on NASA eventual missions to Mars.

“Due to the incredibly high cost of launching mass to Mars, carrying every tool or replacement part that [astronauts] might need simply isn’t affordable,” said Jesse Cushing, the Refabrictor project’s Principal Investigator. “ The Refabricator will demonstrate the ability to recycle plastic parts and waste to make new parts and tools on-demand. This capability will enable [them] to use material that would otherwise be waste to maintain their spacecraft and adapt to unforeseen challenges on [Mars].”

Testing the Limits of Recyclability

Whilst aboard the ISS, the Positrusion Recycler Refabricator will be used to test how a microgravity environment affects 3-D printing and the materials being used. Astronauts will also use the device to determine just how many times plastic can be recycled and refabricated before it begins to break down.

The Refabricator has already been used (on Earth) to run material through four manufacturing cycles, which could be a huge boon for Mars missions. “The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance towards our vision of implementing a truly sustainable in-space manufacturing ecosystem,” said TUI CO Dr. Rob Hoyt. New plastics will likely be formulated to further improve their recyclability, perhaps allowing as many as ten or more cycles with the same material.

From the sound of it, the Refabricator will have plenty of applications here on Earth when it’s ready to roll out for commercial use. If it’s tests on the ISS, scheduled for early next year, are successful, it could become a hit on Mars, too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see about refurbishing some used printing equipment into some kind of something for outer space use. I needs me that sweet, sweet grant money!

Photo credit: Veronica Belmont via Small Kitchen / CC BY-NC

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