3D printing is already being used extensively by NASA. Things like rocket engine parts and a space pizza maker have been created using 3D printing. Now, by the end of September, the first space camera made almost entirely from 3D printing will be debuted.
An aerospace engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center, Jason Budinoff, states: ”as far as I know, we are the first to attempt to build an entire instrument with 3D printing.”
A 2-inch camera is being built by Budinoff for a miniature satellite. Next year, the camera will have to pass a thermal-vacuum test as well as a vibration test in order to travel in space. Budinoff is also making a 14-inch dual-channel telescope using 3D printing. If both space instruments are successful, then the 3D printing technique could cut down the cost and time of mass production, which would benefit space exploration vastly as it is a costly endeavour.
Firstly, metal powder is melted using a computer-controlled laser. Secondly, a particular configuration is then created from the melted metal using a 3D computer design. Layer after layer is assembled so that even tiny internal features and grooves can be built that are impossible to build using conventional manufacturing methods.
But the instruments are not space ready yet. ”I basically want to show that additive-machined instruments can fly. We will have mitigated the risk, and when future program managers ask, ‘Can we use this technology?’ we can say, ‘Yes, we already have qualified it.’” Budinoff stated.
Budinoff’s 3D printed camera will only use four separate pieces, but a traditional camera requires 5-10 times the amount of parts. This will greatly reduce the cost of building space instruments. Budinoff is currently trying to create a way to build metal mirrors from 3D printers. Mirrors are essential for telescopes. He is hoping to use aluminium powder. He will use a process called ‘hot isostatic pressing’which will turn aluminium into a mirror. The 3D printed aluminum mirror is put in a heated chamber under 15,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The aluminum’s surface porosity will decrease from the pressure and heat to create a polished mirror.
Infrared instruments that are used in extremely cold temperatures would need these types of mirrors. Under normal conditions, infrared sensors are created using different materials. If the whole instrument were made of aluminium, the temperature of the instrument could be controlled easier.
[Image via NASA]